The golden age of hijacking


First aired on The Current (9/7/2013)

These days, air travel can be tedious: the restrictions on what can and cannot be taken on planes, the random searches, the screening of luggage and bodies. It wasn't always that way. Forty years ago, air travel was a much different experience. It meant fancy meals, lax ticketing policies, and virtually no security. It also meant it was remarkably easy to hijack a plane and this happened -- a lot. Between 1961 and 1972, there were 159 hijackings in American airspace. Author Brendan Koerner calls this period "the golden age of hijacking" and discusses hijacking history in his new book, The Skies Belong to Us.


Hijacking was easy back then because there was no security. "You could walk from the curbside to the very top of the boarding stairs with no ticket, no one would check out ID or your luggage or your body or anything like that," Koerner told The Current guest host Mike Finnerty. Air travel was still a new industry and airlines were trying to attract as many customers as possible. They had also weighed the pros and cons of dealing with hijackings versus installing fancy security systems and determined that it just wasn't worth it financially.

Hijackers were "a really, really varied bunch. You had a lot of disgruntled Vietnam veterans, you had a lot of political radicals, you had a lot of the mentally ill. You also had a lot of adolescents. You also had people who were aggrieved by their jobs or their employers. People were all over the map, really." Hijacking became popular because people were angry and hijacking was easy. The Vietnam War, a struggling economy and a civil rights movement that "had been decimated by the assassinations of its leaders" all contributed to "a disillusionment with affairs in America," Koerner said. "There was a lot of anger floating around the country and I think this was one way it manifested itself. People taking out that rage by seizing airplanes."

Once they seized the planes, they made demands, for money, supplies and an escape route. Being flown to Cuba or Algeria was a popular request. "You had people asking for, of course, millions of dollars," Koerner said. "But also outlandish things: camping gear, alcohol, cigarettes, all be brought to them." The airlines' policy at the time was to comply completely with the hijackers' demands. "They just wanted the passengers to be safe and to get the airplane back and so they would do whatever the hijacker asked."

Very few hijackings turned violent and, as a result, passengers became almost blasé about the possibility of being hijacked. "They knew that people were hijacking planes, not to kill anyone or harm anyone but to negotiate," Koerner said. "The attitude was, 'oh well, we're going to be delayed from our final destination for 10-20 hours because of this drama, but we might as well sit back and smoke a couple cigarettes and have a glass of bourbon and ride it out.'"

Eventually, the hijackings became too much: they were too frequent and were becoming increasingly violent. Koerner says the end of the golden age was November 1972, when three men hijacked a flight over Alabama, demanding they receive $10 million or else they'd crash the plane into a nuclear reactor in Tennessee. "That's really the point where the airlines realized that the potential liabilities of letting this epidemic grow worse and worse over time had become too severe to ignore," Koerner said. Airport security was introduced and has dramatically increased over the years, especially since September 11, 2001, and these days, hijackings are extremely rare.

Since the book came out, Koerner has learned people are scared to read it on airplanes. "They are afraid if the TSA sees it in their luggage during the screening process that they will be beckoned aside for strips searches, or they will freak out their seatmates, or air marshals will pounce on them," he said. "It really speaks to the state of paranoia we have about aviation security that was so absent in this era."

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