Skyjackings Like the Egypt Air Takeover Tuesday Were Once Common

Between 1961 and 1972, 159 commercial flights were hijacked in the United States alone.


It's looking like the Tuesday-morning hijacker of an Egypt Air plane bound for Cairo was motivated more by personal than political reasons. The hijacker, who claimed to be wearing a bomb, ordered the plane diverted to the island of Cyprus, several hours from Egypt—and the home of his ex wife. Egyptian media reports that he threw a letter from the plane once it landed at the airport in Larnaca, asking that it be delivered to his former spouse. Others, however, say he wanted the release of some female Egyptian prisoners. Whatever his motives, the hijacker—identified by the Cyprus Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Seif Eldin Mustaf—surrendered and was arrested, and the plane's passengers and crew have been released with no injuries. The explosives strapped to his chest didin't even turn out to be real. 

The mood on Twitter and cable news quickly turned from fear to aww, shucks jokes about the lengths this man went to for love. (Well, with the exception of Fox News, which was reporting that it's unknown if the explosives were real long after other media said they weren't; suggesting that maybe the hijacker didn't voluntarily surrender but was "overtaken" by passengers and crew, when nothing has suggested that; and questioning whether we need to up security measures at airports.) There were also a good deal of people celebrating that a skyjacking has, for a change, ended without anyone hurt or any major catastrophes. But skyjackings that don't end in tragedy are actually much more typical than those that have.

As Bredan Koerner noted in his 2013 book The Skies Belong to Us Crown, skyjackings were once quite common. Between 1961, when the first plane hijacking in American airspace occurred, and 1972, 159 commercial flights were hijacked in the United States alone. 

The 1961 hijacking involved a Miami electrician who diverted a flight from Key West to Cuba so he could warn Fidel Castro about an imaginary assassin. "The man was arrested upon arrival, the passengers were treated to lunch in Havana, and the flight was delayed by three hours before landing safely in Key West," reports Jessica Loudis at The New Inquiry in a review of Koerner's book. More from Loudis: 

Once Kennedy finally made skyjacking a capital offense, in the fall of 1961, the designation led to a lull in hijackings that would last until 1965, when a 14-year-old boy commandeered a plane in Hawaii. After that, Cuba proved to be by far the most popular destination for hijackers: By 1968, regardless of their destination, all airplanes were outfitted with charts of the Caribbean sea in the event of a rerouting to Havana. For several years, hijacked planes were a source of extra income for the Castro regime, which charged airlines an average of $7,500 to retrieve their aircraft. To dissuade would-be hijackers, the State Department proposed offering free one-way flights to Cuba to anybody who wanted them—a measure the Cuban government rejected.

In 1969, the Federal Aviation Administration convened a special anti-hijacking task force to come up with a solution to the problem. The most popular suggestion (which was never acted upon) was to build a mock version of Havana's Jose Marti Airport in South Florida to trick hijackers into thinking that they had reached Cuba.

By 1971, skyjackings had become so frequent that Lloyd's of London started offering hijacking insurance to travelers in the U.S., guaranteeing "$500 per day of captivity, plus $2,500 in medical coverage, and $5,000 in the event of death or dismemberment" in exchange for a $75 premium per flight.

The era of skyjacking reached its apogee and conclusion in 1972. That year saw 40 separate hijackings and a coup-de-grace in which three men hijacked a plane over central Alabama and threatened to fly it into a nuclear power station. After realizing that airplanes could potentially be used as "weapons of mass destruction" the government finally mandated the use of metal detectors and armed guards at airports nationwide.

What seems "most archaic" about the early era of mass flight is how easily passengers moved about the airports, writes Koerner in the intro to The Skies Belong to Us. "Anyone could stroll onto a tarmac and queue for boarding without holding a ticket or presenting identification. Some flights even permitted passengers to pay their fares after takeoff, as if jets were merely commuter trains with wings. A generation of skyjackers exploited this naivete." 

Interestingly, Koerner "has no political axe to grind," according to Loudis' review, and treats the skyjacking wave as a "strange viral phenomena, opportunistic infections attacking a diseased airline system … an avenue of personal expression for his eccentric and unfailingly earnest subjects."

One midcentury hijacker explained his impulse thusly: "It was better than eighteen years of therapy, or whatever. It just seemed like the answer."