EgyptAir hijacking a rare occurrence in post-9/11 era

Despite Tuesday's hijacking of EgyptAir Flight MS181, few airplanes have been hijacked since the deadly events of Sept. 11, 2001 — and it's been decades since the so-called "golden age" of hijacking, when aircraft were commandeered on an almost weekly basis.

Latest hijacking of an airliner an example of an increasingly uncommon crime

Like many similar incidents before it, the hijacking of EgyptAir Flight MS181 attracted international media attention. (Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters)

An airplane hijacking has commandeered international headlines once again, after an Egyptian man wearing apparently fake explosives hijacked EgyptAir Flight MS181 and forced it to land on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Yet the incident, which ended without any casualties after the hijacker surrendered to authorities, is an example of a crime that has largely disappeared.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were the highest-profile hijackings of the last two decades, resulting in thousands of deaths — but those attackers threw away the traditional tactics for hijackings.

"It introduced a different paradigm," said Scott Stewart, vice-president of tactical analysis at Stratfor. Stewart noted that the Sept. 11 attackers used box-cutters rather than guns or grenades, and had no intention of holding the planes and their passengers hostage, unlike previous hijackers.

"I don't consider [hijacking] a real terrorist attack tactic anymore," said Stewart.

Hijackings rare since 9/11

There have been few airplane hijackings since Sept. 11, and even fewer that could be considered successful from the hijacker's point of view.

Anthony Roman, a former commercial airline pilot who is now a counterterror analyst and CEO of Roman & Associates, attributes that to both increased security and a change in passenger attitudes.

"Security has become much more robust around the world, but is nowhere near what it needs to be," said Roman.

A table compiled by the Aviation Safety Network lists 51 airplane hijacking incidents around the world between Sept. 11, 2001, and April 1, 2014. 

In one notable incident in April 2009, Jamaican troops freed six crew members from a hijacked CanJet plane. A gunman had stormed the plane as it sat on the ground at Montego Bay's Sangster International Airport. The flight crew successfully negotiated the release of the passengers before being rescued themselves.

One recent deadly incident that could be likened to a hijacking was accomplished without a weapon at all. Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked his superior out of the cockpit and crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps on March 24, 2015, killing 150 people.

But Stewart said the risk of dying in a modern-day airplane hijacking is "really small." Many of the incidents between September 2001 and 2014 involved small domestic airlines.

"Unfortunately, anything involving aviation grabs a lot of media, and tends to create a lot of panic," he said.

Hijacking for fame, and for love

It wasn't so long ago that airplane hijackings seemed almost a weekly occurrence, according to Brendan Koerner, a contributing editor at Wired and author of The Skies Belong to Us, a history of the so-called "golden age" of airplane hijackings in the U.S. Koerner describes that era as running from roughly 1968 to 1972, before the advent of physical screening for air travellers.

"This was the first era in which people travelled en masse on airplanes," said Koerner. "There was a glamour to air travel that's absent today."

In that cultural climate, said Koerner, taking over an airplane provided the hijacker with "a very big audience and a lot of attention." That could be attractive to people with personal grievances.

"You definitely had many hijackings that took place where people had personal narratives," said Koerner. "It wasn't for a political cause necessarily, it was because they'd been spurned romantically, or they'd been fired from a job, perhaps they thought unjustly."

In this image, a TWA flight is hijacked by armed militants in 1985, but many historical hijackings were carried out by individuals with personal grievances. (Nabil Ismail/AFP/Getty Images)

Koerner counted 159 hijackings in U.S. airspace between 1961 and 1972. U.S. airports implemented passenger and carry-on baggage screening in January 1973.

"Pretty much immediately, that curtailed the epidemic," said Koerner.

Even if hijackings are rare today, it appears that some may still be motivated by romantic yearning.

A report from The Associated Press on Tuesday quoted an anonymous Cypriot official as saying that the hijacker of EgyptAir Flight MS181 "seems [to be] in love." A report from the Cypriot Broadcasting Corporation said the hijacker's ex-wife lives in Cyprus.

With files from The Associated Press


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