A Short History of Air Hijacking

The first recorded air hijacking took place on February 21, 1931 in Arequipa, Peru. Armed revolutionaries approached American pilot Byron Rickards and tried, unsuccessfully, to force him to fly them to their destination. After a ten-day stand-off, the revolution had apparently succeeded without the hijackers and Byron flew one of their number to Lima.

Air hijacking is defined as the seizing of control of an aircraft for purposes other than flying to the original destination. There are cases of self-hijacking in which a commercial airline pilot has seized his craft to take it somewhere other than its scheduled destination. Air hijackings are typically although not universally politically motivated.

A successful air hijacking appears to consist of the following components: the aircraft, hijackers with the will to carry out the hijacking, a crew that can be convinced of the hijackers’ ability and willingness to carry out their threats, and a friendly destination.

After the first hijacking attempt in the thirties there were relatively few hijackings until after World War II. From the point of view of Americans, air hijacking can be divided into several distinct periods: 1931 to 1957, 1958 to 1967, 1968 to, roughly, 1980, 1980 to 2001, and 2001 to the present.

From 1931 to 1957, a period of 27 years, there were probably fewer than 20 air hijackings worldwide. Several of those were in Eastern Europe by people attempting to flee from Soviet rule there.

1958 marked the first hijacking of a plane from Cuba to another destination in an attempt by Cubans to flee Castro’s rule [correction: the first was by pro-Castro militants trying to support Raul Castro; the second hijacking in 1959 was flight from the Castro government]. The U. S. government either openly or tacitly welcomed these hijackings and it’s clear in hindsight that the United States’s official reaction to hijackings from Cuba to the United States was imprudent. These initial hijackings from Cuba were followed, starting in 1961, by hijackings to Cuba. From 1958 to 1967 something like 40 air hijackings took place worldwide, many of them between Cuba and the United States.

In 1968 a number of significant developments took place. First, the number of hijackings jumped dramatically: nearly as many (31) took place in that year alone as had taken place in the preceding ten years. Second, the number of places where hijackings were taking place increased substantially. The first (and only) successful hijacking of an El Al aircraft was undertaken by PLO terrorists. There were hijackings in China and India. In 1969 the number of hijackings increased again to 82. It was clear that something had to be done.

1973 marked a significant turning point in air hijacking history. The United States and Cuba entered into a reciprocal agreement to prosecute air hijackers. That, along with similar agreements between other countries, e.g. Taiwan and China, more stringent security measures, and better scanning equipment resulted in a decrease in air hijacking and by 1980 the number of hijackings had dropped significantly although it has never returned to the pre-1968 level. When Castro abrogated the agreement in 1977, hijackings from the United States to Cuba resumed; when the agreement was restored, the hijackings stopped again. From 1968 through 1977 there were roughly 41 hijackings per year; from 1978 through 1988 there were roughly 26 hijackings per year.

From 1980 through 2000 the combination of security measures mentioned above hadn’t eliminated air hijackings but they weren’t becoming more numerous or more dangerous, either. That changed with the air hijackings on September 11, 2001.

To the best of my knowledge that was the first time that hijackers had used commercial airliners as weapons of war and it marks the first time a coordinated attack using hijacked airliners was mounted. Until that time the risk of air hijackings fell mostly on airlines and air passengers. On September 11, 2001 most of those killed were on the ground and the preponderance of the property damage was caused on the ground. That marked the beginning of a period of enormously heightened risk from air hjacking, not from the standpoint of irrelevant statistics like passenger miles but from the standpoint of potential costs and those who were assuming the risk. It also meant that reciprocal agreements between countries were no longer effective in reducing air hijacking. When the hijacked airliners were weapons of war, a friendly destination was no longer required.

Don’t interpret the paragraph above as an endorsement of the measures that the United States has taken since 9/11: I think that nearly every step we’ve taken has been a misstep. However, I don’t think that we can dismiss the need for air security as some have done.

To my mind the message of the history of air hijacking is clear. As long as air hijacking is successful in its objectives it will only escalate. Without serious security measures air hijacking will only escalate. Every country must send a a message of unambiguous opposition to air hijacking for any purpose whatever.

My friend James Joyner ended a recent post with the following plaint:

Presuming that Osama is still alive and the tape is genuine, it’s quite interesting that he’s now reduced to bragging about horribly botched operations to bolster his credibility. It would be funnier, of course, if we weren’t massively overreacting to the plot and further snarling our transportation system and curtailing the liberty of our citizens.

Fair enough. I don’t care for our current approach, either. However, I don’t recall that James has ever expressed himself on what measures he’d prefer. Recall that it’s all but certain that no security measures whatever would all but certainly result in an enormous increase in the number and severity of air hijacks. That’s the lesson of history.

I’ll go first. I think that we need a more layered approach with private citizens, the airlines, the airport authorities, and the federal government all playing clearly delineated roles. The federal government should concentrate on its primary responsibilities: securing the border. An improved method of determining who should receive visas would seem to be an obvious move. Haven’t a significant proportion of those who were successful or have attempted the destruction of a commercial airliner via suicide hijacking been travelling on student visas?

Improved intelligence gathering and analysis would also seem to be an obvious move but it has, apparently, been one that the federal government has found elusive. It might be that concentrating its attentions on the actions that only it can perform would help it from being diverted into areas that can be handled as well or better by others. I have seen little evidence to date that the federal government has the ability or inclination to perform effective screening of passengers.

I think that responsibility should rest on the airlines themselves. They have been getting people onto airplanes in the millions every year for decades so, clearly, they have the experience for the job. I believe that placing strict unlimited liability for the consequences of a successful air hijacking on the shoulders of the airlines would give them the motivation to take whatever measures are necessary. Under existing law top management already has responsibility for what their underlings are doing. The prospect of an airline CEO doing hard time for negligent homicide could do wonders to concentrate the mind.

In my view exempting American and UAL from liability following 9/11 was an error. Doing otherwise might have meant the death of both companies but it would have encouraged the others.

Passengers have a responsibility, too. The actions of the passengers on the recent Flight 253 in subduing the so-called “Underwear Bomber” show that passengers are taking the issue seriously. Now if we can only get everybody else to be as serious.


Air hijacking article on Wikipedia
South Asia Analysis Group article on air hijacking
BBC history of air hijacking
Boca Raton News article, August 15, 1980
Answers.com article on air hijacking
AirDisaster.com article on air hijacking

16 comments… add one
  • I should do a post on this issue at some point. Basically, I think we pretty much precluded another 9/11 style attack on 9/11. Once passengers became aware of the repercussions, they were no longer going to allow a successful hijacking. Plus, we took a reasonable measure in securing cockpit doors and otherwise ensuring that pilots wouldn’t let terrorists have the controls again.

    Otherwise, the measures you discuss strike me as most prudent: Screen potential terrorists rather than trying to check every person boarding an airliner. Neither is foolproof but the former is at lease a logical response to the problem.

  • A minor point of correction: Castro came to power in 1959.

  • Thanks. I’d got my sequences wrong. The second Cuban hijacking (in 1959) was by folks fleeing Castro; the first was pro-Castro militants trying to support Raul Castro.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I would prefer some sort of dual screening system, where U.S. citizens go through one door to be screened by the airline, ideally aided by a national i.d. card. The second line would be for non-citizens, screened by federal government employees with access to the foreign intelligence information and protocols. I don’t desire hardship on non-citizen travelers, but I don’t think spreading the burdens across the entire population makes sense.

    I’ve noticed that a number of the domestic terrorists that have been apprehended do not appear to be looking at airlines as targets. They look to buildings or symbols of law enforcement like FBI buildings and court houses. This may be because domestic terrorists are more likely to be radicalized through some contact with the criminal justice system, but the distinction appears stark to me. I don’t think a citizen can be a terrorist; I think they are not likely to target an airplane.

  • steve Link

    Are you unaware of the Bojinka plot, 1995? It was foiled almost by accident, but at that point, it should have been clear that there was an intention to use planes as weapons. Why we didn’t reinforce doors then is a mystery to me.

    As to your question, I am a rationalist, so probably not the best person to ask. I would do a cost-benefit analysis coupled with a sincere estimate of how much we are willing to spend. From various readings, it looks as though an Israeli type plan would cost about $100 billion a year, depending how much we decide to subsidize the airlines. I think the next successful bombing will come from something in the cargo TBH.

    However, if we are going to be making some effort, I would prefer that we concentrate on intelligence efforts. We need better coordination between agencies (see Lang). I would keep the basic scanning we have now, as it does make it more difficult to use easier to fabricate metal switches and detonators. I would avoid two tier systems, as that creates an easier path.

    Very importantly, this needs to be done as an overall part of the information war. We need to make sure that those who are sympathetic to our side/cause are willing to report potential attacks, like the father of the undie-bomber did. We need to stop creating an environment favorable to jihadist recruiting.

    Lastly, if you want to 100% stop airplane attacks, just dont put it on the news. Hide it. Without publicity, these attacks do them no good. This is impossible, but we could attempt to diminish it. Maybe not, it is such an easy way to engage in partisan point scoring.


  • Michael Reynolds Link

    Hire retired street cops, retired FBI, Highway Patrolmen and let them question at will. A good street cop feels the bad guys. Like a shark smelling blood.

    Yes, this would mean the appearance of profiling because they would foolishly expect the perps to be middle eastern rather than, say, Norwegian or Japanese. But it is in effect what the Israelis do. I’d rather trust my safety to an old Chicago or Philly beat cop than to technology.

  • Patrick T McGuire Link

    Back in the 90’s, I was flying on Air France from Paris’ Charles De Gaule airport to the US. Europe had experienced some terrorist attacks on some airports and so they were taking security very seriously.

    After getting my boarding pass at the ticket counter, I had to go through a security checkpoint (bags were xrayed, I walked through a metal detector) on my way to the departure area. Having arrived early, I spent some time window shopping in the duty free area until it was time to go to the departure gate.

    On leaving the main departure area for the wing that had my departure gate, I again had to go through the same type of security checkpoint. Everyone was screened in the typical manner. However, all this was nothing compared to the final security check.

    When the flight was ready for boarding, passengers were called individually by seat number (or in groups for families) for a final security check just before boarding the plane. At this point, a person whom I presumed to be a security officer (he was dressed in a suit and tie but no insignia) would ask for the boarding pass and passport of each passenger. He would then proceed to ask several questions such as “How long were you in France?”, “Why are you travelling to the US?”, etc.

    I observed several of these interrogations before it was my turn and each time the security officer stared very intently at the passengers as they answered his questions. I got the distinct impression that he wasn’t even listening to their answers but rather carefully studying their behavior. I briefly toyed with the idea of giving some nonsense answer to test my impression but when it was my turn, the look in his eyes made me think otherwise.

    Here was a man who was taking a very “no-nonsense” approach to his job. There was no humor, no friendly customer service attitude, no concern for political correctness. This man conveyed a clear message that you would not get on this plane if he had any reason to suspect that you might be thinking about doing anything other than being a model passenger.

    As I answered his questions, he looked me straight in the eye. I don’t know what he was looking for but, in my typical fashion, I returned the look. After his last question, there was what seemed like several minutes where he just stared at me, or possibly into me, without saying another word. Apparently satisfied, he handed me my papers and wished me a pleasant trip before turning his attention to the next person in line.

    It took a long time to get everyone boarded but the plane departed on time and arrived safely several hours later. To this day, I think of that experience every time I have to fly somewhere and think to myself that our “security” is a joke.

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