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Terrorism alert triggered over France after pilot falls asleep

Two fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the plane and urgent messages sent between Paris and Rome when the captain failed to respond for 10 minutes

An ITA Airways plane flying in the sky

The ITA Airways jet did not respond to initial contact from Marseille nor to subsequent messages, for 10 minutes (picture used for illustration) Pic: InsectWorld / Shutterstock

A pilot triggered a terrorist alert over French airspace after falling asleep in the cockpit of a passenger jet for 10 minutes, it has emerged.

The co-pilot was also sleeping, but was taking an authorised nap within the context of a “controlled rest” period. The captain of the jet was the only one at fault, having fallen asleep accidentally during this time.

The Italian pilot and co-pilot were flying an ITA Airways Airbus A330 flight from New York to Rome on April 30 when the incident occured, leading the plane to remain silent for 10 minutes while flying over French airspace.

The absence of communication caused a terrorism alert and urgent communication between Paris and Rome.

French authorities scrambled two fighter jets to intercept the Airbus A330 and check that it was not subject to a hostage situation. 

Italian authorities then contacted ITA Airways’ central command centre, which also tried to contact the pilots, firstly through a satellite phone and then through ACARS messages. ACARS is a satellite communication tool used between pilots in the air and ground staff.

After 10 minutes, the communication finally got through.

ITA Airways has reported that both the captain and the co-pilot were both asleep for a short time, although only the captain fell asleep accidentally.

The captain has now been fired for committing “a grave error”. He denies having fallen asleep and instead said that the silence was due to problems with the communication system. Yet, an internal investigation found that this appeared to be in full working order.

Davide D’Amico, ITA Airways spokesperson, said that the plane’s passengers were never in danger at any point as the plane’s automatic pilot system was in place. The plane never diverted from its planned flight route during the entire incident.

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