EgyptAir hijacking

Airplane hijackings getting rarer

PARIS • The first airplane hijackings occurred not long after international air travel became commonplace. In those days, most hijackers were seeking refuge or riches, not mass murder or global attention for a radical cause. Terrorist hijackings were a later development, but after reaching a grim apex on Sept 11, 2001, they have become less and less common.

At a time when the most recent threats to commercial air travel have taken the form of bombings, missile strikes or rogue pilots, an Egyptian's attempt on Tuesday to commandeer a flight while sparing the aircraft - and the lives of everyone on board - came as a surprise to many observers conditioned to expect disaster.

It was not so during the Cold War, when hijackings were often desperate attempts at escape across the Iron Curtain.

Jetliners also became attractive targets for escaped criminals.

By the mid-1970s, at least 150 planes had been "skyjacked" in the United States alone.

In 1970, Palestinian militants hijacked five planes - four bound for New York, one for London - to demand the release of activists imprisoned by Israel. Three of the planes were forced to land at Dawson's Field, a former British air force base in Jordan, while a fourth was diverted to Egypt. The crew on the fifth plane - an El Al flight to New York from Amsterdam - overcame the hijackers on board and made an emergency landing in London.

"That was the first major terrorist hijacking attempt that captured the media's attention," said Mr Norman Shanks, a consultant and former manager of airport security at Heathrow Airport near London. "They were not intent on killing people. It was simply a way to get publicity."

It was not until Dawson's Field, Mr Shanks said, that the international aviation community began to take coordinated action to prevent hijackings. And it was only in the late 1970s that the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a United Nations agency, began requiring passengers to pass through metal detectors and hand luggage be X-rayed before boarding.

After a bomb brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, airports began to introduce additional screening systems to detect explosives.

The Sept 11, 2001 attacks prompted a new wave of tighter precautions.

Analysts say that enough doubt remains about the thoroughness of security at some airports that air crews cannot confidently call a would-be hijacker's bluff about having a weapon.

"Today you can hijack an aircraft with just words," said Mr Shanks. "All it takes is that uncertainty."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2016, with the headline Airplane hijackings getting rarer. Subscribe