FedEx asks FAA for OK to add anti-missile systems to some cargo planes

Jan 15, 2022

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Editor’s note: The featured image of this article has been changed for clarity.


Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night famously keeps United States Postal Service carriers from delivering mail. When it comes to delivering packages and cargo, FedEx wants its planes to be able to keep going if attacked by missiles.

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A FedEx plane waiting to take off. (Photo by Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy)

“In recent years, in several incidents abroad, civilian aircraft were fired upon by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS),” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a notice posted Friday. In other words, weapons like shoulder-fired missiles.

El Al Israel Airlines equips its commercial aircraft with anti-aircraft missile technology and planes used for Air Force One have both electronic and infrared countermeasures to jam or divert incoming missiles when the U.S. president is on board, Politico notes.

The worry is that someone may try to use a heat-seeking missile to attack a jetliner.

But to date, aircraft used for cargo delivery have not been equipped with any anti-missile capabilities. To avoid costly delays and rerouting, and to continue to be permitted to fly over trouble spots that might otherwise be closed to air traffic, FedEx asked the FAA back in 2019 for permission to install laser-based missile defense systems on Airbus A321-200 airplanes, which the company does not currently have in its fleet.

The information came to light in an FAA filing.

“FAA design standards for transport category airplanes did not envisage that a design feature could project infrared laser energy outside the airplane. The FAA’s design standards are inadequate to address this capability,” the FAA notes.

In response to the FedEx request, the FAA is now proposing conditions to allow the package delivery company to proceed with the modification the agency describes as “a novel or unusual design feature when compared to the state of technology envisioned in the airworthiness standards for transport category airplanes.”

As explained in the FAA notice, the proposed design feature is a system that emits infrared laser energy outside the aircraft as a countermeasure against heat-seeking missiles. But the agency’s regulations don’t currently have “adequate or appropriate safety standards for this feature,” according to the FAA. “These proposed special conditions contain the additional safety standards that the Administrator considers necessary to establish a level of safety equivalent to that established by the existing airworthiness standards.”

The FAA conditions cover a variety of safety concerns and apply only to Airbus Model A321-200 airplanes with laser-based missile defense systems. “This action affects only a certain novel or unusual design feature on one model of airplane. It is not a rule of general applicability and affects only the applicant,” the FAA said. The special conditions can be applied to other plane models with similar design features, but only if the applicant applies for a supplemental certificate, the government agency noted.

The special conditions include assuring that the system has a way to prevent the inadvertent activation of the system on the ground, including during airplane maintenance and ground handling, and making sure operation of the system in-flight doesn’t damage the airplane or other aircraft or injure any person.

FAA also will require that the airplane flight manual supplement (AFMS) describes the intended functions of the installed laser systems and clearly states: “CAUTION: The operation of the installed laser system could pose significant risk of injury to others while in proximity to other aircraft, airports, and populated areas.”

You can learn more about anti-missile systems and the special conditions in the FAA’s Special Conditions notice here.

Featured image of a FedEx MD-11F by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.

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