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Europe to reduce fighter jet interceptions of airlines

Europe plans to bolster cooperation between air-traffic controllers and the military in a bid to reduce interceptions of airlines by fighter jets acting on hijacking worries. Pilots accidentally lose contact with traffic controllers about once a day on average in Europe, prompting “scrambles” by air forces on higher alert since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the U.S., said Bo Redeborn, a director at Eurocontrol, the 36-nation European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation. In some incidents the pilots have no idea that the interception is related to themselves They start waving to the fighters until they realize that they have a problem. European air-traffic authorities want to spread information on flights to curtail false alarms about security threats. Aircraft interceptions in Europe occur about once a week, costing taxpayers and disrupting traffic, said Redeborn. With North Atlantic Treaty Organization support, Eurocontrol plans to create a network for sharing data with the military on flights that lose radio contact with controllers. The system, due to be phased in over two years from 2007, aims to help defense forces deduce earlier that a communication loss represents no threat by giving them a fuller picture. Most aircraft-communication losses occur because of pilot mistakes including selecting the wrong radio frequency, according to Redeborn, who is responsible for air-traffic management strategies at Eurocontrol. The majority of the cases when there is a communication loss it is related clearly to the issue of hearing wrong, selecting wrong, not listening up on the part of pilots. Such errors annoy military authorities concerned about the cost of interceptions and complicate work for European air-traffic controllers, who handle about 30,000 flights a day and must make adjustments during a scramble that “distort the flow of the civil traffic,” Redeborn said. Scrambles cost about €10,000-€15,000 an hour for two fighter jets, a NATO spokesman said by telephone on July 11 in Brussels. Fighter pilots on intercept missions make visual contact with the flight deck of the aircraft under suspicion and communicate using hand signals. National authorities are responsible for deciding whether more aggressive action should be taken during an interception such as escorting a plane to land. The planned air-traffic information network is called the European Regional Renegade Information Dissemination System. In addition to helping reduce the number of false alarms about flights, the system will enable faster responses to any actual security threats, said Redeborn. European authorities failed last year to agree on a standard time to wait before alerting the military in cases where controllers lose contact with an aircraft, according to Redeborn, who said talks focused on a proposed period of 7 minutes. “People felt it was totally inappropriate,” he said. “States decide for themselves what they consider being the appropriate time to react to a threat rather than having a common view. In a dense terminal-maneuvering area, 7 minutes is an awful long time.” Scrambles in Europe occur more often in the “core” European region including Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland where aircraft are closer to urban areas than in peripheral countries such as Sweden and Portugal, said Redeborn. He said most aircraft-communication losses in Europe affect planes flying between European airports because 85% of Europe's air traffic remains in the region. “It's not an isolated European problem.” Some governments have threatened to charge airlines for scrambles, according to Redeborn, who said the idea had stalled because of the difficulty of determining culpability and costs. “That idea is going nowhere for the moment,” he said. “But if you don't address a problem like this, eventually it could come up again.” (Bloomberg)