The hijacking of EgyptAir Flight 181 on Tuesday morning, when a man claimed to be wearing a suicide vest and demanded to be taken to Cyprus, was surely terrifying for the 64 people on board. But after it came to a conclusion on a Cyprus runway with the arrest of the hijacker, the safe release of the passengers, and no bloodshed, what was most striking was how retro the whole drama seemed.
Before 9/11, this is what hijackings were like: Individuals driven by personal gain or idiosyncratic requests diverted planes to places they weren't supposed to go. These hijackings ended with inconvenience, not with mass tragedy.
And this type of hijacking happened with stunning frequency in the United States. Between 1968 and 1972, more than 130 American airplanes were hijacked. Sometimes there was more than one hijacking on the same day. In a 2013 book, The Skies Belong to Us, Brendan I. Koerner, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, dubbed the period the "golden age of hijacking."
The hijackers, or "skyjackers," wanted flights to communist Cuba, or millions of dollars in ransom, or maybe just an outlet for their rage and frustration. And for years, airlines largely gave in, fearing that customers would find metal detectors at the airport more off-putting than the possibility of a midair diversion.
Even when the federal government began taking the problem seriously, some of the proposed solutions now seem outlandish — such as building a pretend version of the Havana airport in South Florida so that hijacked planes could land there instead.
I talked to Koerner about the EgyptAir incident, the golden age of hijacking, the surprising parallels between '60s hijackings and mass shootings, and why it took so long for the government and airlines to take the problem seriously. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Hijacking was so common that "Take me to Cuba!" became a joke
Libby Nelson: One thing that astonished me is how common hijacking used to be. There was a point in American history when planes were literally being hijacked all the time.
Brendan Koerner: Between May 1961 and the end of 1972, there were 159 hijackings in American airspace. The majority of those were between '68 and '72, a five-year stretch, and sometimes they happened at the rate of one per week. You could have multiple hijackings in the same day — it was not an infrequent occurrence.
People are surprised by the fact that this was facilitated and there was virtually no security at airports. The whole phenomenon of walking through metal detectors and having your carry-on luggage searched is something that didn't start until 1973.
It was really a reaction to the fact that this epidemic of hijackings in America had just become too violent and unpredictable, and the airlines, in particular, finally had to relent and accept that they would have to inconvenience their customers in order to allay customer fears.
LN: What did these hijackers want?
BK: The easiest way to do this is to break down the hijacking epidemic into three distinct eras.
The first era, which lasted from 1961 until about 1969, was people wanting to go to Cuba. This is pretty soon after the revolution. There's obviously been great animosity between the US and Cuba, and there's been kind of a news blackout.
But there's a certain segment of the population that idealizes life in Cuba. Cuba represents this place, this mysterious potential socialist paradise, 90 miles from Florida. and you had a lot of people who hijacked planes to go there — people originally from Cuba who wanted to go back, people who were deluded and thought they'd be feted by Castro. So you had the "take this plane to Cuba" hijackings, which are very, very frequent.
Then, starting in '69, you had hijackers demanding to go other places.
The first was Raffaele Minichiello, a Marine who demanded to be flown from Los Angeles to Rome. And the airline complied with his request. So you had hijackers saying, wait a minute, we don't have to just go to Cuba. We can go anywhere! You have people demanding to be taken to Algeria and North Korea and Sweden and Argentina, and other different locations on the map.
The EgyptAir hijacking feels like a throwback to an earlier time
LN: How did the demands evolve from "Take me to Cuba"?
BK: In 1970 you had the extortion phase. Hijackers start asking for exorbitant amounts of ransom. And again, the airlines comply with them. The airlines' policy was comply totally, and if you do that, that increases the odds that the plane will be safe, and the passengers will be safe, and we'll get the money back.
Through the end of '71 and '72, hijackers were demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars, or sometimes gold bars — lots of material wealth in exchange for the passengers.
Libby Nelson: The EgyptAir hijacking seems like something out of another era — the era you wrote about in The Skies Belong to Us. What does it have in common with the hijackings you wrote about?
Brendan Koerner: My phone started buzzing at 4:30 in the morning with people in Europe familiar with my work. I was pretty fascinated by it. The rare thing in this is someone using a plane to get to a foreign land, which was pretty typical for what I call the "golden age of hijacking" but is not something you see very often these days.
He was clearly interested in some kind of negotiation. He released the hostages, and there was a protracted period of time with the plane on the tarmac before they were released. It fit the pattern we saw with the golden age of hijacking — with hijacking as a tool of negotiation, not something, post-9/11, that's about fomenting death and destruction.
LN: What would happen today on an American plane if someone tried to hijack it the way they did the EgyptAir flight?
BK: One thing you have to keep in mind, during this golden age, the policy of the airlines was total compliance.
Clearly knowing what we know now, that there are people willing to kill themselves in the service of killing many others, that alters the equation. There's an assumption that negotiation isn't a possibility anymore, that it's something we aren't going to entertain because the risks are just too great.
It's really hard to see a situation in which something of this nature would happen. Things worked out fine in the end, everyone was safe, and I suspect that the air crew sized up this man, this hijacker, who seems like he was somewhat mentally unbalanced, sized him up and realized their best policy was to get the plane safely on the ground somewhere and deal with this. So clearly we have to trust our great pilots to make snap judgments.
But given our horrific experiences with hijacking as of late, it's very hard to imagine a return to this sense of "let's make everything a negotiation."
Hijackings in the '60s shared some characteristics with today's mass shootings
LN: What made hijacking so common then, aside from the fact that we're talking about a generally tumultuous period — the late '60s — in American life?
BK: It was a time period in American history when you had frustration — with the fact that some of the idealism of the mid-'60s had not panned out, that the war in Vietnam was intensifying. Clearly there was a lot of frustration around the fact that the great promise of the civil rights movement had not panned out as people had hoped. There had been some assassinations. There was cynicism.
And airplanes were great targets. First of all, because of the lack of security, but also because there was a fascination with commercial air travel at this time. This was an era when anyone could afford a plane ticket. Air travel was much more glamorous and luxurious than we are accustomed to. Even on a short-haul flight, you would be served steak and champagne in coach class.
There was real interest in the technology in the way there is not today. A company like Boeing was being revered as a technological pioneer in the way that Apple is today.
For people who wanted attention and wanted to make a stir and wanted to play out their personal narrative of rage and disillusionment, airplanes were a great venue in which to do that.
LN: As I read The Skies Belong to Us, I was struck by a parallel with mass shootings. Hijackings seemed to happen in clusters, spurred by the media attention lavished on hijackers; you write about hijackings as a way for people who felt isolated or angry or marginalized to feel powerful. Even though the result is a lot less deadly, is it fair to compare this to the mass shooting epidemic?
BK: I clearly was thinking about the mass shooting phenomenon when I was thinking about the book, about a behavioral criminal epidemic and how that plays out. There was research done at the time on this fact of how the hijacking "virus" transmits across these populations.
When they interviewed hijackers who had been captured and psychiatrists who interviewed them in prison, they would say how they were inspired by news coverage of hijackings and thought, "I can do better than that; I can improve upon that." There was a media-driven aspect of the phenomenon, no question.
That time when building a fake Havana airport seemed like a better strategy than strict airport security
LN: The airlines had a policy of trying to give the hijackers what they wanted. If they wanted to go to Cuba, they'd take them to Cuba. If they wanted money, they'd bring the ransom and try to arrest the hijackers and get it back later. How did that come about? How did the government and the public react to this epidemic?
BK: The airlines had a tremendous amount of political influence at that time. There were a number of congressional hearings about this issue over those years. And time and again, the airlines managed to use the political clout to stall reform.
Their rationale: This was the first really affordable era of mass air travel, and they were worried if people felt like criminals merely because they wanted to travel on airplanes, if people had to wait in line for 15, 20, even 30 minutes, they might choose to drive or they might choose to take a Greyhound bus.
There was an argument that this would really harm their young, growing industry, to subject their customers to security.
LN: People submitted ideas that seem crazy — like dressing up an airport in the US as Havana. Were they really taken seriously?
BK: The Federal Aviation Administration had an anti-hijacking task force, and they did solicit ideas from the public. They got these amazing ideas. The ones that pop to mind, and this is one they took seriously, are things like, "Build a fake Jose Martí International Airport in South Florida, pretend you're landing in Havana, and arrest the hijackers when they get off the plane."
Some of them were not totally serious — some of them were like, "Make everyone wear boxing gloves on the plane so they can't hold a gun."
What they ended up doing was creating a behavioral profile. The idea was when you got your ticket, the ticket agent would give you a once-over, and if you fit this list of 20-some behavioral cues that might be indicative that you might be a hijacker, you might be beckoned over for kind of a private search.
It was supposed to apply to less than 1 percent of all travelers, to maximize the odds that you can pick out people who might be hijackers and leave 99 percent-plus of passengers alone.
LN: And the customers didn't mind? They'd rather be hijacked than stand in a security line?
BK: It certainly changed over time. In the "take me to Cuba" phase, there was a kind of weary acceptance: "I'll spend the night in Havana, I'll have a story to tell at the next cocktail party, and maybe I'll smuggle back some cigars and rum."
There's a great Time magazine piece from 1968 called "What to do if the hijacker comes." It's a dos and don'ts guide to Havana. It's kind of tongue-in-cheek and lighthearted — people were not really being killed.
When people start being killed in 1971 or 1972, when there was a lot of potential for planes being crashed and really horrific incidents occurring, that's when you get a real weariness among the public.
It took the threat of nuclear devastation to make the US take hijacking seriously
LN: So when did people realize hijacking could be more than an inconvenience?
BK: There was this incident in the summer of '72, a Pan Am flight was hijacked by this Vietnamese national who'd been a student at the University of Washington.
He hijacked the plane and was trying to take it to Hanoi. He's sympathetic with the North Vietnamese cause. He ends up being shot to death by a man on the plane, and the pilot throws the hijacker's body out the back of the plane and lands on the tarmac in Saigon. There's a very famous image of this young man's body splayed out on the tarmac beneath the 747.
When this pilot gets back to the US he's treated like a hero. When he steps off the plane in Arizona, there's a cheering crowd that greets him at the airport. That was the first moment when you could say the public grew very concerned about hijacking, and no longer took it lightly.
LN: When you say people were killed, how deadly did the hijacking epidemic get?
BK: It wasn't tons and tons of people, but there were definitely people killed during shootouts especially. Oftentimes when there was violence, it wasn't a hijacker deciding to execute a passenger. It was because the FBI raided a plane and things got a little crazy.
There were definitely some pilots who were shot. It wasn't a very high death toll, but there certainly could have been planes that got crashed. That was the fear, that some hijacker would be desperate enough to crash a plane into a populated area or a nuclear reactor.
LN: What changed to get the US serious about stopping hijackings?
BK: There was a hijacking in early November 1972, which I discuss in the book: Southern Airlines Flight 49. This was a commuter airplane, and these three men threatened to crash into the atomic reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Pretty soon after that, it's clear that the risks of this epidemic had just gotten unimaginable. Starting January 5, 1973, the FAA instituted universal physical screening of passengers, and everyone had to pass through metal detectors and have their bags searched.
In very early days it was searching by hand — they hadn't rolled out X-ray machines to all airports yet. On the first day it happened, all the newspapers sent reporters to airports. They were hoping there would be confrontations.
But, really, the public welcomed it at that point. Even though there were pretty significant delays, there was such exhaustion and weariness, and fear surrounding this criminal epidemic that had been going for so long.