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New push to protect airlines from missiles

Foiled plot brings calls to fit planes with antimissile devices, though their cost remains an impediment.

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Last November, the captain of an Arkia Airlines flight from Mombasa, Kenya, felt a small bump - almost like a bird strike - and then saw two smoke trails going the past the wing of his Boeing 757. The "bird strike" turned out to be two ground-to-air missiles that just missed. But they prompted Israel to equip its commercial airline fleet with new electronic countermeasures to try to intercept future missile attacks.

Now, pressure is building for the US airline industry to implement similar safeguards. Government officials have talked about such moves ever since Sept. 11, but the high cost of installing a system has slowed momentum. A new push may be under way, however, with the disclosure that the government has foiled an arms dealer from selling a Russian-made ground-to-air missile.

In the next several months, it is believed, the US will decide on technology that will protect either planes as they take off or perhaps entire airports.

"The FBI operation will only make this happen much faster," says Rafi Ron, president of New Age Security Solutions, an airport security consultant. "The technology will be ready in a few months' time, The question is how long will it take to allocate the money and install the systems."

To install antimissile systems on each plane could cost $1 to $2 million per plane. Some estimates put the total cost as high as $10 billion.

At the request of the Bush administration, the government has asked eight defense contractors to search for feasible solutions. Last month, the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill included $60 million to adapt military technology for commercial use.

Legislation is also pending in Congress that would equip all commercial aircraft with antimissile technology once it is available.

"Since last February, when I introduced legislation to equip all commercial aircraft with antimissile technology, I have said that shoulder-fired missiles remain a serious threat to American planes both home and abroad," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, author of the bill, in a statement Tuesday.

The legislation, called the Commercial Airline Missile Defense Act, is currently in the Commerce Committee. The administration has yet to take a position on it, according to congressional sources.

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