Every day, Air Traffic Control stations across the globe are monitoring planes in their airspace to ensure their safety. This usually involves communicating with them for basic instructions and relaying any important information. However, on rare occasions, ATC may call upon fighter jets to intercept passenger planes if they believe a security threat exists. Here’s why.
The most common reason for sending, or “scrambling,” fighter jets to follow a passenger plane is a loss of communication. On the small chance that ground controllers can’t communicate with an aircraft despite repeated attempts, they will request that the military quickly send in fighters to communicate air to air.
This is what happened with a Jazeera Airways A320neo when it became unresponsive over Frankfurt last October. The German Luftwaffe quickly deployed two Eurofighters to communicate with the plane, which was successful and allowed the flight to continue to its destination of London. A similar incident happened with a Kenya Airways 787 in September over Frankfurt.
There is an unintended consequence of these interceptions: sonic booms. To reach the unresponsive plane as quickly as possible, fighter jets can go supersonic, causing a loud boom over the land. These sounds have been described in many ways, including “like a truck falling over on the nearby junction” or “a tank might had been exploding at the local chemical plant.” The sounds vary by how closer those on the ground are.
This makes interceptions a last resort for ATC, with initial steps like using different frequencies and equipment deployed first. Following this, nearby planes may be asked to try and make contact before the military is asked to step in. International rules govern interceptions to ensure they are safe.
However, there is one situation where fighter jets are the first response.
With security for those onboard and on the ground being the top priority, any threats are dealt with as quickly as possible. Any reports of bomb threats, suspicious objects onboard, or anything else that threatens flight safety will result in the aircraft being followed by fighter jets and diverted to the nearest safe airport.
This is what occurred with a Lauda A320 and Ryanair 737 in 2020. On the first flight, a note was found in the aircraft lavatory that said the 737 had explosives onboard. The pilots quickly reported the incident and RAF jets diverted the Krakow to Dublin plane to London Stansted Airport.
The Lauda flight also saw a suspicious item being discovered, with fighters again escorting the A320 to Stansted, its destination. Since there is no room for error, even the smallest reports can cause planes to be forced to the ground immediately.
Interceptions were in the news last year after the Belarusian government forced a Ryanair flight to the ground. The reason was allegedly due to a bomb threat, but the interception was actually to arrest an opposition journalist. This resulted in massive sanctions and travel bans on the country, including denying access to overflying the EU and US.
In most cases, the fighter jets attempt to establish communication with the errant aircraft and restore the flight path. However, during safety incidents, the fighters are in charge of safely escorting the planes to the designated airport without disruptions. Given the risks involved in the sky, interception is an important tool for governments to use to regulate their airspace.