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Two days ago I read in the news:

Two U.S. fighter jets escorted a Canada-to-Panama flight back to Toronto after a passenger allegedly threatened the plane Friday morning. The nature of the threat or why the passenger was agitated were not specified. CBS News reported that the passenger told a flight attendant, "I have a bomb and I will blow up Canada."

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What's the point of escorting the flight while it has been threatened by a passenger? How do they help to eliminate the threat?

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My best guess would be that the second aircraft is there just in case the first one has some sort of emergency himself and has to abort the mission. –  Lnafziger Jul 29 at 1:49
    
@Lnafziger fighters are trained to operate in pairs, watching each others' backs constantly. Just because there's no threat to the fighters doesn't mean you abandon SOP... –  jwenting Jul 30 at 6:26

3 Answers 3

Fighter jets escorting planes after various sorts of emergencies seems to be standard procedure in many countries, you hear about it quite frequently. It's sometimes implied in the media that if the situation would turn into a 9/11-type hijacking it might be necessary to shoot the plane down but nobody seems willing to fully clarify who could take such a decision and under what conditions on the record.

Now, in most cases, there isn't even a suggestion that a hijacking is happening but it's difficult to determine that in a timely manner and there are still two things fighters can do in other cases:

  • Get a visual confirmation of the situation aboard the plane (Is the plane damaged? The cockpit windows obscured? Who is in the cockpit?)
  • “Guide” a pilot who has lost communication to an airport.

Also, one factor is that being able to scramble jets is often seen as a basic requirement to assert sovereignty (witness the mini-controversy in Switzerland when it was revealed that the air force could not do it at certain times of the day) so politically it seems difficult to entirely give up on it, even if it could be argued that it's a waste of money.

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It may not be waste of money. It may be simply paid from the training budget and counted towards the hours the pilots would have to fly to maintain proficiency anyway. I don't know which countries do or don't do that. –  Jan Hudec Jul 28 at 15:24
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In fact it is quite reasonable to count such mission towards training of the fighter pilots. They have to follow often quite complicated instructions from their controller (to avoid all other traffic), locate and identify the target and manoeuvre in vicinity of the target for some time, all things they would need on combat mission too. –  Jan Hudec Jul 28 at 15:32
    
@JanHudec That may be but none of this require 24/7 availability, which has a cost in itself. And if you give up on this mission, having fighter jets and training pilots on them might itself be seen as a waste of money for many countries. –  Relaxed Jul 28 at 23:19
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@Relaxed pilots need a certain minimum amount of flying time to stay proficient (including a set number of night hours), combining those hours with operational missions saves on having them fly around in otherwise pointless circles. It also saves on airframe hours, ever more important with our fighter fleets aging to the point most of them are nearing their fatigue lives with no replacements budgeted for. –  jwenting Jul 29 at 7:04
    
In the British case, a hijacked aircraft falls into the category of aircraft in (or near) British airspace without authority, and the same procedure is followed as for (e.g.) a Russian bomber approaching British airspace (this happens once or twice a month, in general). This is the only useful write-up of the British situation I'm aware of. –  gsnedders Jul 31 at 13:20

If absolutely necessary the plane can be prevented from making a mess of a major city, but it is basically a rather obvious visible sign to anyone misbehaving in the plane that they are in very, very deep trouble.

Given the threat of "I have a bomb and I will blow up Canada" the cabin crew are clearly overreacting. Highly unlikely a bomb big enough to take out Canada would go unnoticed, esp. as the plane would be grossly overweight with it.

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Airline crews are not trained to just ignore it when a passenger claims to have a bomb, however crazy the passenger may seem. –  reirab Sep 29 at 15:12

Especially post-911 it became paramount to ensure that such aircraft form no threat to cities and other places where crashing an aircraft into them would cause serious damage.
Blowing it out of the sky, however bad it would be for the passengers (not to mention the psychological impact on the fighter crews and their controllers) would be preferable to having thousands of victims on the ground (and a major PR coup for some terrorist group).
So jet fighters are scrambled to escort the aircraft until it's on the ground somewhere or the threat otherwise neutralised (say the attempted hijacking foiled by people on board).

This is little different from fighters being scrambled to escort intruders into a nation's airspace (and in extreme cases shoot them down) which has been done since the end of WW2 and maybe sporadically before (without radar to detect intruders and guide interceptors it's a lot harder to do so obviously, and prior to WW2 that wasn't available).

In this specific case it may have been overreaction to a madman with a fake bomb, but not knowing whether the threat was real or not it's easier to send up the fighters and later recall them than to have to explain to congress and even worse the press why you didn't act after the jetliner crashes into some city center during lunch hour...
Be happy that they have the option to send up fighters and don't have to rely on guided missiles alone, as there's no recalling those once launched...

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Don't they have guided missiles that they can recall? –  gerrit Jul 28 at 12:46
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@gerrit recalling a guided missile requires prematurely detonating them which may still damage the plane. and a pilot in the air can make better decisions after establishing visual contact –  ratchet freak Jul 28 at 12:57
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@gerrit recall? no. Destruct? Some models have that option, many do not (if you build it it can be jammed, and you'd prefer not to have your target order your missiles fired at it to destroy themselves). Of course with UAVs carrying warheads that can be ordered to patrol and return or sent on a suicide mission the line between aircraft and missile is getting blurred, but those are typically designed to take out ground targets, too slow to target aircraft. –  jwenting Jul 28 at 13:45

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