Flickr image courtesy caribb

Israeli government authorities are determining how to proceed with an anti-hijacking system after it elicited outcry from pilots who worried commercial airliners may be shot down accidentally due to false terror alerts. A transportation official told Reuters earlier this month the program was “on hold.”

During a trial phase in 2008, pilots were given special card-sized key pads to confirm their identity by punching in a verification code as they neared airports in Israel. Reuters described the plan in an earlier story:

Pilots who fail the authentication test when they approach Israeli airspace will be denied entry. Should a plane go ahead, ignoring further warnings, Israel will consider it hostile and scramble fighter planes for an interception. In the worst case, that could mean an aircraft is shot down.

Aviation professionals grew concerned that Israeli jets hurrying to respond may shoot a plane out of the sky by mistake, presumably in order to prevent it from becoming a missile aimed at a major population center. Others objected that any breakdown of the devices could result in expensive delays or prevent airliners from making emergency landings in Israel made necessary by something other than terrorism.

One group, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, said in a July statement [PDF] the program could “open a new hole for terrorists to exploit,” perhaps by allowing them to confuse the system and deliberately cause a disaster without the need to hijack a plane:

The first priority of pilots is to ensure the safe arrival of their passengers and crew. Therefore, the threat of action by the [Israel Defense Forces] may also act as a strong deterrent to pilots to enter a stress code when the situation may suggest that they should.

Several organizations oppose or at least have expressed skepticism about the warning system, dubbed Code Positive, including an association representing Israeli pilots, the International Air Transport Association and the European Union. Carriers that participated in the test period were Continental Airlines, US Airways, Delta Air Lines, Air Canada and Ethiopian Airlines.

Earlier this year the pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines flight didn’t send the correct code in time to a control center and travelers were surprised to see two Israeli Air Force jets appear alongside them as they headed over the Red Sea. After the pilot managed to verify that the plane was OK, it was allowed to land without further incident beyond a cabin full of startled fliers.

On another occasion last year, jet fighters reportedly intercepted a Delta flight due to a pilot’s malfunctioning verification card, but the plane eventually landed safely.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.