Back in January, we reported that American Airlines would test anti-missile technology on flights between New York and the West Coast this summer, part of an evaluation program sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security.
The test effort was hardly a state secret; USA Today (among other outlets) also reported on the planned evaluation program. As we noted at the time, the idea of testing anti-missile systems on U.S. airliners was a good idea, and largely overdue.
With thousands of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles available on the world arms market, these weapons pose a clear threat to commercial airliners. You may recall that an older man-portable (or MANPAD) SAM narrowly missed an Israeli jetliner over Kenya in 2002, and another MANPAD damaged a DHL cargo jet leaving Baghdad in 2003. Lightweight, easy-to-use and difficult to track, shoulder-fired SAMs are an ideal terrorist weapon.
At the time the test was announced, we also observed that American was dead set against the idea of permanently installing missile defenses on its airliners. A company spokesman questioned the "cost to benefit ratio," and asked if such systems would really work.
The answer can be found in the lives of countless aircrews who have been saved by anti-missile defenses on their aircraft. We also wondered if American preferred the alternative: the potential loss of a passenger jet to a MANPAD, and a resulting economic disaster for the struggling airline industry.
Flash forward seven months, and WBZ-TV in Boston confirms that the test is underway (yawn). Hey guys, tell the assignment desk to put us on your daily reading list, and we'll keep you ahead of the curve.
Incidentally, the current round of testing is aimed at measuring the cost of carrying defensive systems on aircraft, in terms of increased drag and fuel consumption. A better question might be: what sort of price tag would you put on saving the lives of 200 passengers and a flight crew? True, the missile defense systems are expensive, and the associated drag will mean more fuel. But, at a cost of $1 million per aircraft (about $3 more for every transcontinental ticket), it's an investment worth making.