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