Tuesday October 2 11:49 AM ET

Are Remote Control Jets Worthwhile?

By JUSTIN POPE, AP Business Writer

BOSTON (AP) - There's little doubt that landing a plane from the ground - technology that could prevent hijackers turning a commercial jet into a weapon - could soon be feasible.

Whether it's a good idea or not is another question.

Raytheon Corp. is one of several companies looking to use new satellite technology that could someday help jets to be landed by people on the ground, in much the same way that hobbyists bring in their model airplanes by remote control.

The company announced Monday that its technology had guided a Federal Express 727 to a safe landing on a New Mexico Air Force base in August - all without the need of a pilot. Raytheon says the technology, primarily designed to help navigation, could be useful in a remote landing system.

Federal agencies and private companies have been exploring such technologies as a way to make air travel more secure after the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings.

But industry watchers fear it might actually make the skies less safe.

``There's some pretty overt national security concerns, I would think,'' said John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

``The devil is in the details. Is this something we would put on all aircraft? Because I'm sure you can imagine if I can control all aircraft you would create a new target,'' he said.

But advocates argue a remote-control override technology might have averted the Sept. 11 disaster, or even prevented others like the 1996 Valujet crash in Florida and the 1998 SwissAir crash, where flight crews apparently were incapacitated by fire.

``Perhaps in both of those cases, if people on the ground could have been made aware of the problems, those planes could have been brought back to safety,'' said James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association.

He cited technology being developed by NASA (news - web sites) that would keep track of airspaces above natural obstacles and cities and ``essentially makes it impossible for the planes to fly into those airspaces.''

Boeing Co., whose space and defense businesses have done a good deal of work on remotely controlled aircraft, said it would wait to hear from federal authorities before deciding whether the new technology could work in commercial aircraft, said spokesman John Dern.

``Translating that into the commercial world and certifying such a system would pose big challenges,'' he said. ``For safety and reliability and redundancy, we'd certainly want to be sure that anything we'd do enhances safety.''

Dern said any effort would require cooperation from the government, manufacturers, pilots and airlines. John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association (news - web sites), did not return a phone message Monday.

Terrorism expert Richard Bloom, of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., said the remote control technology might head off unsophisticated hijackers or even deranged passengers.

But he warned it would do little against sophisticated and determined enemies, whose creativity always seems to overcome technological obstacles.

``Either they would avoid the technology altogether or they would learn enough about the system that they would induce it to malfunction or not function in a particular place,'' he said.

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On the Net:

National Air Traffic Controllers Association: http://www.natca.org

National Air Transportation Association: http://www.nata-online.org

Air Line Pilots Association: http://www.alpa.org

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