Hijacking Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The act of commandeering an aircraft in flight by means of force or violence.


Aviation security is a major concern, even though hijackings and terrorist acts against civil aviation declined from their height in 1969. Hijacking first became a serious problem for the United States in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when the majority of forcibly diverted flights were directed to Cuba. Air piracy events initiated stricter airport security provisions in the United States with the passage of 14 CFR Part 107, amended in December, 1972. The number of U.S.-registered aircraft hijacked per year fell dramatically from a peak of forty in 1969 to one in 1973. After initiating regulations increasing airport security in the early 1970’s, the United States passed Public Law 93-366, the Air Transportation Security Act of 1974. At the international level, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted Annex 17, Safeguarding International Civil Aviation Against Acts of Unlawful Interference, which became applicable in February, 1975. The number of hijackings briefly remained low, with two in 1976, but subsequently increased.

From January, 1977, to July, 1979, there were seventy-eight air carrier hijackings worldwide, twenty-four of which were of U.S. aircraft. The United States’ share steadily increased from 16.6 percent of all hijackings in 1977, to 32 percent of those in 1978, to 47.8 percent of those in the first half of 1979; this two-and-one-half-year period saw more hijackings than the total occurring between 1972 and 1977. All these occurred while a record of more than 18,000 firearms confiscated at airport screening points and 6,400 related arrests showed the effectiveness of new airline passenger screening procedures. In the twenty-four U.S. hijackings that occurred during this period where the hijackers were processed through passenger screening, none actually had a real weapon or high explosive.

In 1980, twenty-one U.S.-registered airplanes were hijacked. In 1981 and 1982, there were fewer than ten hijackings each year, but in a sharp increase, eighteen occurred in 1983. Additional security measures were taken, followed once again by the steady decline. From 1984 to 1987, there were fewer than five hijackings per year, and only two in 1988.

At the end of the twentieth century, the vulnerability of civil aviation to the different forms of terrorist hijacking action was still a major concern. The geographic areas of greatest danger were Europe, the Middle East, and Central America. Within the United States, the anti-Castro and the Croatian and Serbian groups were most active. Although hijacking posed a serious threat to civil aviation throughout the world, terrorist activity was curtailed greatly in South America (the location of the first hijacking in aviation history), primarily due to successful paramilitary security, albeit at the expense of significant civil liberties.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, in what was immediately termed the worst act of terrorism in U.S. history, four commercial jetliners were hijacked by teams of terrorists and crashed into significant American buildings. Two airplanes were flown into New York City’s World Trade Center, collapsing both of the center’s towers. Another was crashed into the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C., collapsing part of that building. A fourth airplane crashed outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when passengers confronted the hijackers. In all, more than three thousand people died. Although no terrorist group immediately claimed responsibility for the crashes, all evidence pointed to the al-Qaeda terrorist network headed by Saudi billionaire and Islamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden.

Who Hijacks and Why

Developing a profile of the typical hijacker and understanding the motivation for such an act provides the basis for trained observation to identify and deal with potential hijackers. One set of classifications identifies rational, psychological, or cultural hijackers. Another set of classifications determines whether hijackers are motivated by money, politics, or religion. A rational but dishonest thief with a financial motivation may be swayed by patient discussion, leading to a nonviolent conclusion to the extortion attempt. Both political and religious fanatics hold the greatest threat for an unsatisfactory outcome.

Criminal motives were a factor in 68 percent of the hijackings of U.S. airplanes from 1984 to 1988. Thirteen of the nineteen involved simple extortion, demands for the release of certain incarcerated prisoners, political asylum or repatriation, or flight from criminal prosecution. Of these thirteen, seven activists demanded to be repatriated back to Cuba. The next largest group, four of the nineteen, were determined by judicial authority to be mentally incompetent. Political terrorism accounted for 11 percent of the events between 1984 and 1988.

The hijackers were almost uniformly male; only one of them was a female. Three of the nineteen cases involved more than one hijacker. It was worrying that 47 percent of the hijackers had undergone preboard screening. Although the hijackers claimed to have knives, guns, explosives, incendiary devices, or a combination of these weapons in their possession, the claimed items were verified in only three of the nineteen instances.

The incidents of September 11, 2001, demonstrated the deadly evolution of hijackings. The nineteen terrorists, all men, were willing to die for their cause and to kill thousands in the process. No political demands were made.

Hijackings Outside the United States

Cases of foreign registry hijackings had the same decreasing frequency from a high in 1970. A total of seventy-four foreign-registered aircraft were hijacked from 1984 through 1988. One notable difference, however, was the prolonged duration of threat in terrorist hijackings. A significant example occurred in 1988. On April 5, Kuwaiti Airways Flight 422, en route from Bangkok to Kuwait, was seized. At least seven Middle Eastern men were involved, although the exact number was not verified. They demanded that the Kuwaiti government release seventeen other terrorists incarcerated for the 1983 bombing of government facilities as well as the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait. The aircraft was diverted to Mashad, Iran, then to Larnaca, Cyprus, and Algiers, Algeria, over a sixteen-day period. Two Kuwaiti passengers were killed. It is believed that the hijackers were well-trained, organized individuals, conscious of the value of manipulating media coverage of the event.

Other motives in foreign cases vary from individuals fleeing authoritarian regimes or law enforcement agencies, to the mentally unstable, to people searching for better economic conditions. One person even sought the reunification of China through hijacking. The most popular area in the world for hijack activity was the Middle East (twenty-six of seventy-four hijackings), followed by Europe (twelve), and Latin America (nine).

With the outbreak of the Gulf War, many individuals feared there would be a widespread outbreak of terrorist crimes. For the first time ever, the entire U.S. National Airspace System was elevated to a Level 4 security status. Previously, the National Contingency Plan was not in effect, nor had its different security levels been established. Tightened security under the plan includes increasing law enforcement officer patrols, allowing only ticketed passengers and employees into boarding areas, eliminating curbside check-in, and denying passenger access to checked luggage. At O’Hare and Dallas/Fort Worth airports, all newspaper vending machines, trash receptacles, and ashtrays were even removed from the terminals. Companies warned their employees to take extra precautions, advising people to take nonstop flights from origin to destination and to avoid certain destinations altogether. Certain airlines known to be the focus of terrorists were to be avoided. Some companies canceled all but the most essential travel. Corporate and private business jets in the United States became popular as companies searched for travel options. Unfortunately, most airports had no budget for extended periods of sustained, high-level security measures and personnel.

Terrorism by definition is “the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.” Unfortunately, effective terrorists want to make big headlines, which can be quickly accomplished when many people are killed or injured or held on an airplane for days. No matter how strict the security measures, it is probable that any terrorist could get a weapon into any airport, anywhere. There are no X-ray machines or any other means of detecting weapons at the entrances to the public areas of airports. Roving police officers have their attention focused on illegally parked vehicles at the curb, on vehicles trying to get to the curb, or on other distractions. Most people around the world share an unspoken but common assumption that hijacking cannot happen to them. This assumption may be unduly optimistic, but in the meantime, cautious security checks continue in an attempt to protect air travelers from hijackings and other acts of terrorism.

Although incidents of terrorism and bomb threats in aviation are few and far between, at the turn of the twenty-first century, threats of terrorism in the muslim world placed airlines and airports on a high state of alert from the Middle East to Europe as well as North America. The events of 2001 showed that the U.S. mainland was a very credible target as well. Iraq and Afghanistan became new breeding grounds for terrorist groups from the Middle East, who have often found hijacking to be an effective terrorist tool.

In December, 1999, Kashmiri hijackers commandeered a plane en route from Kathmandu, Nepal, to New Delhi, India, flying the plane to Amritsar, India; Lahore, Pakistan; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and finally to Kandahar, Afghanistan. They demanded the release of political prisoners held in India, and killed one passenger who did not comply with their orders quickly enough. The other 154 passengers were eventually released after negotiation, but the hijackers’ difficulty in finding a location where they could stop to negotiate illustrates the effectiveness of international treaties against hijacking and the reason why hijacking has become a less effective terrorist tool. Unfortunately, since it is no longer easy to hold a planeload of passengers hostage in order to make a political point, terrorists have turned their energies simply to bombing planes out of the sky or to crashing them, resulting in much higher death rates for passengers caught up in political turmoil.

Security Measures

On December 21, 1988, Pan American Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people on the plane and 11 others on the ground. Investigation revealed that a plastic explosive, hidden in a portable radio in baggage in the cargo hold, had ripped the jet apart. The placement of the plastic explosive was linked to activities of the Abu Nidal group.

In response to findings of lax airport security leading up to the bombing of Pan American Flight 103, the General Accounting Office (GAO) testified in front of the Presidential Commission on Aviation Security. Four areas of major deficiency were outlined during testimony: passenger screening, airport security controls, security inspections, and airline training requirements for security personal, especially better training standards for overseas security personal. Furthermore, it was suggested that accountability for and oversight of airport security were made especially difficult by the division of responsibility among different organizations. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), despite its regulatory role, is not responsible for airport security in any direct way. This contrasts with the state of affairs in Europe, where even though security standards differ among countries, it is a common practice for governments, in their role of overseeing all aspects of aviation, to hire, staff, and operate airport security programs and equipment.

Firearms and other prohibited items continue to be found in large numbers at screening checkpoints. Of thirty-one attempts to hijack scheduled air carriers, none resulted from real firearms or explosive devices passing undetected through screening. In eleven cases, the hijackers either forced their way aboard or in another fashion avoided the normal passenger screening. In fifteen cases, the hijackers said that they had deadly weapons when in fact they had no weapons at all. However, the events of September 11, 2001, showed that knives can be equally dangerous. The hijackers killed crew and passengers with box cutters smuggled on board. As a result, knives of any length were banned on flights.

One security problem is unauthorized access to sensitive areas. Following the crash of a Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) flight in California on December 7, 1987, investigators found that there had been a breach of security screening when a former employee used one of six invalid airline photo-identity cards to bypass the passenger screening station at Los Angeles International Airport. He showed the ID card, smuggled a pistol aboard the plane, and shot the flight crew in an act of murder-suicide.

The incident pointed out some of the shortcomings of existing security procedures: poor accounting of identification badges, the need for increased security over points of access to aircraft, and lack of any method to identify and track personnel moving into and out of secured areas. A number of measures, including computer-based electronic card access control systems, eye retina scanners, digitized images or fingerprints, “voiceprints” and closed-circuit television cameras have been implemented to prevent unauthorized persons, including potential hijackers, from gaining access to aircraft. However, the FAA has made slow progress toward certification and installation of the advanced bomb detection equipment at U.S. airports.

In general, efforts to enhance security systems only occur after some specific incident attributable to lax security has occurred. One such reactive response to the Lockerbie tragedy was the FAA’s research into and employment of thermal neutron analysis (TNA) explosive detection systems at air terminals. The FAA is also interested in the X-ray computed tomography (CT) scanner as a second sensor to back up the TNA system. Another system receiving the attention of the FAA is the high-speed backscatter X-ray system, with automatic explosives screening capability, that can search for plastic explosives concealed in luggage. The system has been installed at Honolulu International, Los Angeles International, San Francisco International, and John F. Kennedy airports by Japan Airline Company.

The implementation of the March, 1979, revised federal aviation regulation (FAR) Part 107 governing airport security included the training of law enforcement officers in support of airport security programs and gathering explosives-detection K9 teams. The revision also provided that in certain instances, law enforcement officers supporting the passenger screening system can patrol in the public areas of terminals away from the screening checkpoints, thereby enabling them to provide broader deterrence to criminal acts of violence, while maintaining the capability of responding quickly to any need at the passenger screening points.

The revised rule also contained a total prohibition against unauthorized carriage of a firearm, explosive or incendiary device by persons when entering sterile areas or presenting themselves for inspection at established passenger-screening points. Prior to the revision, only the actual carriage of unauthorized weapons aboard an aircraft was prohibited by the FARs. The revised rule provides for a civil penalty of up to $1,000 and is intended to complement existing federal or local criminal sanctions. This revision strengthens the ability to deter hijackings by keeping weapons off airplanes. Security measures cost money, however, and airport operators are critical of the FAA mandating new programs without providing any funding mechanism for them. The costs of anti-hijacking measures must be passed along to consumers in the form of taxes added to the price of air travel tickets.

International Cooperation

The Bonn Declaration on Hijacking (1978) brought together seven heads of state who jointly committed to intensifying efforts to combat terrorism. The Declaration announced that when a country refuses to extradite or prosecute those who have hijacked an aircraft or if the country does not return the aircraft, the seven nations would initiate action to cease all flights to that country, to halt all incoming flights from that country or any country by airlines of the country concerned. Seven hijackings met the criteria that are covered by the Bonn Declaration.

ICAO, at its first European regional security seminar in Paris, contributed to the enhancement of civil aviation security and improved cooperation between states on a regional basis, including extensive programs to provide technical aid and training to African states.

At a meeting in Quito, Ecuador, in 1979, representatives from all North, Central, and South American states dedicated themselves to ensuring that civil aviation security requirements were diligently carried out. They all supported the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) General Assembly’s resolution to encourage governments to prevent the use of their territories for criminal activity related to interference with civil aviation or as a refuge to avoid criminal prosecution for such acts.

  • Abeyratne, Ruwantissa I. R. Aviation Security: Legal and Regulatory Aspects. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1998. Covers the legal aspects of hijacking.
  • Choi, Jin-Tai. Aviation Terrorism: Historical Survey, Perspectives, and Responses. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Looks at hijacking within the historical perspective of various forms of aerial terrorism.
  • Gero, David. Flights of Terror: Aerial Hijacking and Sabotage Since 1930. London: Haynes, 1997. A thorough summary of hijackings in the twentieth century.
  • Wallis, Rodney. Combating Air Terrorism. Sterling, Va.: Brassey’s, 1998. Focuses on measures being taken to combat hijacking and other terrorist acts.

Air carriers

Airport security

Commercial flight

Emergency procedures

Federal Aviation Administration

Gulf War

Safety issues


The second of two hijacked airplanes heads straight into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. The simultaneous hijacking of four planes, of which one other was crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and another crashed in western Pennsylvania, marked a renewal of hijacking terrorism after a period of relative quiet.

(AP/Wide World Photos)
Categories: History