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Wireless devices could foil hijack attempts

Federal regulators are suggesting--but not requiring--wireless alert devices that could tip pilots off to security problems.

Flight attendants soon may be outfitted with wireless devices that would be used to alert pilots of attempted hijackings or other in-air security threats.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday that it plans to require that airlines provide a way for the cabin crew to "discreetly notify" pilots "in the event of suspicious activity or security breaches in the cabin."

The proposed regulation, which is not yet final, grew out of an advisory panel that the Transportation Department created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That panel recommended that cabin crews have "a method for immediate notification to the flight deck during a suspected threat in the cabin" that would permit pilots to take appropriate action, such as beginning an immediate landing.

Diane Spitaliere, an FAA spokeswoman, said that some airlines have offered flight attendants that kind of alert system "for quite some time." But the FAA wanted to make it official, she said.

The FAA's proposal does not mandate wireless devices--which Congress recommended in the law creating the Department of Homeland Security but did not require. Instead, the proposal merely says that passenger flights must have an "approved means" by which flight crews could signal such an alert.

Other systems that the agency mentioned as possible alternatives to wireless devices include setting up an alarm procedure using an existing communications system, such as "subtly keying the (intercom) in a specific manner."

Public comments on the proposal are due by Nov. 21. After final approval, airlines would have two years to comply.