Aircraft hijacking (also known as Skyjacking) is the take-over of an aircraft, by a person or group, usually armed. Unlike the hijacking of land vehicles, it is usually not perpetrated in order to rob the cargo. Rather, most aircraft hijackings are committed to use the passengers as hostages in an effort to either obtain transport to a given location, or, in the case of the American planes that were hijacked to Cuba during the 1970s, the release of comrades being held in prison. For many years it was a method of terrorism that was greatly feared in the West. With the growth of tourist air travel the opportunity for terrorists to take control of an airliner has increased. The hijacking of an aircraft is guaranteed international press coverage and presents the security forces of a country with a very difficult situation as an airliner with its few entry points and sealed outer skin becomes a fortress for a terrorist. Hijackings for hostages have usually followed a pattern of negotiations between the hijackers and the authorities, followed by some form of settlement -- not always the meeting of the hijackers' original demands -- or the storming of the aircraft by armed police or special forces to rescue the hostages. Previous to September, 2001, the policy of most airlines was for the pilot to comply with hijackers' demands in the hope of a peaceful outcome this was due to the extreme risk involved with retaking an airliner by force, which is almost guarnteed to bring about deaths among the hostages. Since September 11th, policies have reversed course, in favor of arming and armoring the cockpit.The first recorded aircraft hijack was on February 21, 1931, in Arequipa, Peru.The first hijack of a commercial airliner probably happened on July 16, 1948, when a failed attempt to gain control of a Cathay Pacific seaplane caused it to crash into the sea off Macao. On September 12, 1948 a Greek T.A.E Airlines plane was sucessfully hijacked by 6 pro-communist students who wanted passage to Yugoslavia. The plane landed near Skopje and returned to Thessaloniki later that evening.Since 1947, 60% of hijackings have been refugee escapes. In 1968-69 there was a massive rise in the number of hijacking. In 1968 there were 27 hijackings and attempted hijackings to Cuba. In 1969 there were 82 recorded hijack attempts worldwide, more than twice the total attempts for the whole period 1947-67. Most were Palestinians using hijacks as a political weapon to publicise their cause and to force the Israeli government to releasing Palestinian prisoners from jail.Airliner hijackings have declined since the peak of 385 incidents between 1967-76. One of the most famous was the Palestinian hijack of Air France Flight 193 airliner in 1976 which was brought to an end at Entebbe Airport, Uganda by Operation Entebbe: Israeli commandos assaulted the building holding the hijackers and hostages killing all the Palestinian hijackers and freeing 105 mostly Israeli hostages; three passengers and one commando were killed. In 1977-86 the total had dropped to 300 incidents and in 1987-96 this figure was reduced to 212. This reduction is possibly due to increase villigence at airports and more advanced techniques in retaking hijacked airliners being developed by the worlds security forces. A number of failed hijackings which have ended peacefully without the hijackers demands being meet may also have cast doubt in many terrorist groups minds about the utility of such a method. In the September 11, 2001 attacks, the use of hijacked planes as suicide missiles changed the way hijacking was perceived as a security threat — though a similar usage had apparently been attempted on Air France Flight 8969 in 1994. September 11th suddenly made the hijacking of an airliner a viable terrorist weapon once more. By using the airliners as a weapon rather than a bargining tool the terrorists removed the opportunity for negoiation or retaking the aircraft by force. The shooting down of a taken airliner would be a very difficult political decision to make and would certainly lead to many civilian deaths among the passengers and possibly people on the ground. A hijacked airliner in flight could be regarded as the perfect terrorist weapon once hijacked , you don’t dare stop it!
One task of airport security is to prevent hijacks by screening passengers and keeping anything that could be used as a weapon (even smaller objects like nail and boxcutters, for example) off aircraft.This has proven more difficult than it sounds due to the shear volume of passengers traveling each day. A balance has to be met between security and safety, and the economics of the airline industry, an industry which has only just reached pre September 11th passenger levels.Some airlines have begun fortifying cockpit doors to prevent would-be hijackers from entering and gaining control of the aircraft. In the United States and Australia, air marshals have also been added to some flights to deter and thwart hijackers. These are specially trained personal who remain among the passengers in plain clothes. They are well armed and trained to neutralise any terrorist threat, although the dangers of a gun battle in a cramped , pressurized aircraft would be extreme even with special ammuntion and weapons. In addition, some have proposed remote control systems for aircraft whereby no one on board would have control over the plane's flight although the technologly to do this is dubious. Past mistakes have resulted in travelers being allowed to carry weapons aboard aircraft so that they can hijack the plane. Therefore, travelers must be quickly but efficiently searched. Baggage must be screened to prevent the carrying of bombs aboard an aircraft. X-ray machines are often used to speed this process, although certain types of weapons and materials can be difficult to detect.The world's worst failure of airport security was the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon using hijacked jetliners which killed nearly 3000 people. The deadliest airline catastrophe resulting from an onboard bomb was Air India Flight 182, which killed 329 people.
The airport security in the United States serves as a good case study.Prior to the 1970s American airports had no security arrangements to prevent hijacking. Security measures were introduced following several high-profile hijackings starting in the late 1960s. The most notable was the attempted simultaneous hijacking in September 1970 by the PLFP of four airliners (of which two were American) and the subsequent destruction of three of them on the ground in Jordan and Egypt.Sky marshals were introduced in 1970 but there were insufficient numbers to protect every flight and hijackings continued to take place. How effective Sky Marshals would be in a real in flight hijacking also remains to be seen. Consequently in late 1972, their were demands that all airlines begin searching passengers and their carry-on baggage by January 5, 1973. The September 11th attack prompted even tougher regulations, such as prohibiting the carrying of more items aboard aircraft by passengers and requiring all passengers to prove their identity (though many 9/11 hijackers simply used false ID).Airport security in the United States is now provided by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of the Department of Homeland Security. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act required that from 19 November 2002 all passenger screening must be conducted by Federal employees. Prior to that date, passenger screening was provided by security guard companies; however, some people think that private security companies in America are not able to provide the same service level as US Federal employees. It was not uncommon that the lowest-paid employee in the airport was a security guard and this is often the case throughout the world.As of March, 2004 in the United States, a controversial plan called the Computer-Assisted Airline Passenger Screening System or CAPPS II, was being promoted. The proposed program would force the booking agent or airline to record your name, address, phone number, date of birth and travel destination at the time you purchase a ticket. The data goes from there to the TSA, which forwards it to a contractor for verification. Government officials then would run computer programs that supposedly generate an accurate risk assessment, allowing security to focus their time on high-risk individuals. CAPPS II has come under attack from groups that believe it undermines both privacy and safety (because terrorists allegedly could use it to their advantage), and may be unconstitutional. Despite all these measures it may prove virtually impossible to stop a determined terrorist group getting weapons and personnel onto a flight and breaches in security in the US have already occurred. One further problem with countermeasures in that with the volume of international flights the security in the target country may not be an issue. Many less developed countries around the world have very poor airport security due to lack of money and resources. Terrorist groups are well aware of this and may exploit weak security in another country to gain access to a flight heading towards a more secure country, with tragic results. September 11th showed that the destruction caused by a hijacked airliner being used as weapon is far beyond previous terrorist attacks and may offer the terrorists a more realistic weapon than trying to obtain or develop nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
Smerconish, Michale, Flying Blind: How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety Post-9-11, Running Press, 2004, 232 pages.
How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (14 June 2005), Hijacking, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/concepts_hijacking.html