Aircraft hijacking (also known as airplane hijacking, skyjacking, plane hijacking, plane jacking, air robbery, air piracy, or aircraft piracy, with the latter term being used within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States), or simply hijacking, is the unlawful seizure of an aircraft by an individual or a group. Dating from the earliest of hijackings, most cases involve the pilot being forced to fly according to the hijacker's demands. However, in rare cases, the hijackers have flown the aircraft themselves and used them in suicide attacks; most notably in the September 11 attacks, and in several cases, planes have been hijacked by the official pilot or co-pilot.
Unlike carjacking or sea piracy, an aircraft hijacking is not usually committed for robbery or theft. Individuals driven by personal gain often divert planes to destinations where they are not planned to go. Some hijacking situations intend to use passengers or crew as hostages, either for monetary ransom or for some political or administrative concession by authorities. Various motives have driven such occurrences, such as demanding the release of certain high-profile individuals or for the right of political asylum (notably Flight ET 961). Hijackings involving hostages have produced violent confrontations between hijackers and the authorities, during negotiation and settlement. In the case of Lufthansa Flight 181 and Air France Flight 139, the hijackers were not satisfied and showed no inclination to surrender, resulting in attempts by special forces to rescue passengers.
In most jurisdictions of the world, aircraft hijacking is punishable by life imprisonment or a long prison sentence. In most jurisdictions where the death penalty is a legal punishment, aircraft hijacking is a capital crime, including in China, India, and the U.S. states of Georgia and Mississippi.
Airplane hijackings have occurred since the early days of flight. These can be classified in the following eras: 1929–1957, 1958–1979, 1980–2000 and 2001–present. Early incidents involved light planes, but this later involved passenger aircraft as commercial aviation became widespread.
Between 1929 and 1957, there were fewer than 20 incidents of reported hijackings worldwide and several occurred in Eastern Europe. One of the first unconfirmed hijackings occurred in December 1929. J. Howard "Doc" DeCelles was flying a postal route for a Mexican firm, Transportes Aeras Transcontinentales, ferrying mail from San Luis Potosí to Torreon and then on to Guadalajara. A lieutenant named Saturnino Cedillo, the governor of the state of San Luis Potosí, ordered him to divert. Several other men were also involved, and through an interpreter, DeCelles had no choice but to comply. He was allegedly held captive for several hours under armed guard before being released.
The first recorded aircraft hijack took place on February 21, 1931, in Arequipa, Peru. Byron Richards, flying a Ford Tri-Motor, was approached on the ground by armed revolutionaries. He refused to fly them anywhere during a 10-day standoff. Richards was informed that the revolution was successful and he could be freed in return for flying one of the men to Lima. The following year, in September 1932, a Sikorsky S-38 with registration P-BDAD, still bearing the titles of Nyrba do Brasil was seized in the company's hangar by three men, who took a fourth as a hostage. Despite having no flying experience, they managed to take-off. However, the aircraft crashed in São João de Meriti, killing the four men. Apparently, the hijack was related to the events of the Constitutionalist Revolution in São Paulo and it is considered to be the first hijack that took place in Brazil.
On October 28, 1939, the first murder on a plane took place in Brookfield, Missouri, US. The victim was Carl Bivens, a flight instructor, who was teaching a man named Earnest P. "Larry" Pletch. While airborne in a Taylor Club monoplane, Pletch shot Bivens twice in the back of the head. Pletch later told prosecutors, "Carl was telling me I had a natural ability and I should follow that line", adding, "I had a revolver in my pocket and without saying a word to him, I took it out of my overalls and I fired a bullet into the back of his head. He never knew what struck him." The Chicago Daily Tribune stated it was one of the most spectacular crimes of the 20th century. Pletch pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. However, he was released on March 1, 1957 after serving 17 years, and lived until June 2001.
In 1942, two New Zealanders, a South African and an Englishman achieved the first confirmed in-air hijack when they violently captured an Italian seaplane that was flying them to a prison camp. As they approached an Allied base, they were strafed by Spitfires and forced to land on the water. However, all on board survived to be picked up by a British boat.
In the years following World War II, Philip Baum, an aviation security expert suggests that the development of a rebellious youth "piggybacking on to any cause which challenged the status quo or acted in support of those deemed oppressed", may have been a contributor to attacks against the aviation industry. The first hijacking of a commercial flight occurred on the Cathay Pacific Miss Macao on July 16, 1948. After this incident and others in the 1950s, airlines recommended that flight crews comply with the hijackers demands rather than risk a violent confrontation. There were also various hijacking incidents and assaults on planes in China and the Middle East.
The first hijacking of a flight for political reasons happened in Bolivia, affecting the airline Lloyd Aereo Boliviano on September 26, 1956. The DC-4 was carrying 47 prisoners who were being transported from Santa Cruz, Bolivia to El Alto, in La Paz. A political group was waiting to take them to a concentration camp located in Carahuara de Carangas, Oruro. The 47 prisoners overpowered the crew and gained control of the aircraft while airborne and diverted the plane to Tartagal, Argentina. Prisoners took control of the aircraft and received instructions to again fly to Salta, Argentina as the airfield in Tartagal was not big enough. Upon landing, they told the government of the injustice they were subjected to, and received political asylum.
Between 1958 and 1967, there were approximately 40 hijackings worldwide. Beginning 1958, hijackings from Cuba to other destinations started to occur, and then in 1961, hijackings to Cuba became prevalent. The first happened on May 1, 1961, on a flight from Miami to Key West. The perpetrator, armed with a knife and gun, forced the captain to land in Cuba.
Australia was relatively untouched by the threat of hijackings until July 19, 1960. On that evening, a 22-year-old Russian man attempted to divert Trans Australia Airlines Flight 408 to Darwin or Singapore. The crew were able to subdue the man after a brief struggle.
According to the FAA, in the 1960s, there were 100 attempts of hijackings involving U.S aircraft: 77 successful and 23 unsuccessful. Recognizing the danger early, the FAA issued a directive on July 28, 1961, which prohibits unauthorized persons from carrying concealed firearms and interfering with crew member duties. The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 was amended to impose severe penalties for those seizing control of a commercial aircraft. Airlines could also refuse to transport passengers who were likely to cause danger. That same year, the FAA and Department of Justice created the Peace Officers Program which put trained marshals on flights. A few years later, on May 7, 1964, the FAA adopted a rule requiring that cockpit doors on commercial aircraft be kept locked at all times.
In a five-year period (1968–1972) the world experienced 326 hijack attempts, or one every 5.6 days. The incidents were frequent and often just an inconvenience, which resulted in television shows creating parodies. Time magazine even ran a lighthearted comedy piece called "What to Do When the Hijacker Comes". Most incidents occurred in the United States: there were two distinct types: hijackings for transportation elsewhere and hijackings for extortion with the threat of harm. Between 1968 and 1972, there were 90 recorded transport attempts to Cuba. In contrast, there were 26 extortion attempts (see table on the right). The longest and first transcontinental (Los Angeles, Denver, New York, Bangor, Shannon and Rome) from the US started on the 31 October 1969. The Eastern Airlines Shuttle flight 1320 on May 17, 1970 witnessed the first fatality in the course of a U.S. highjacking. Incidents also became problematic outside of the U.S. For instance, in 1968, El Al Flight 426 was seized by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) militants on 23 July, an incident which lasted 40 days, making it one of the longest. This record was later beaten in 1999. As a result of the evolving threat, President Nixon issued a directive in 1970 to promote security at airports, electronic surveillance and multilateral agreements for tackling the problem.
Furthermore, a report by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in July 1970 revealed the need for action. Beginning of 1969 until the end of June 1970, there were 118 incidents of unlawful seizure of aircraft and 14 incidents of sabotage and armed attacks against civil aviation. This involved airlines of 47 countries and more than 7,000 passengers. In this period, 96 people were killed and 57 were injured as a result of hijacking, sabotage and armed attacks. The ICAO stated that this is not isolated to one nation or one region, but a worldwide issue to the safe growth of international civil aviation. Incidents also became notorious—in 1971, a man known as D. B. Cooper hijacked a plane and extorted US$200,000 in ransom before parachuting over Oregon. He was never identified. On August 20, 1971, a Pakistan Air Force T-33 military plane was hijacked prior the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 in Karachi. Lieutenant Matiur Rahman attacked Officer Rashid Minhas and attempted to land in India. Minhas deliberately crashed the plane into the ground near Thatta to prevent the diversion.
Countries around the world continued their efforts to tackle crimes committed on-board planes. The Tokyo Convention, drafted in 1958, established an agreement between signatories that the "state in which the aircraft is registered is competent to exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed on board that aircraft while it is in flight". While the Convention does not make hijacking an international crime, it does contain provisions which obligate the country in which a hijacked aircraft lands to restore the aircraft to its responsible owner, and allow the passengers and crew to continue their journey. The Convention came into force in December 1969. A year later, in December 1970, the Hague Convention was drafted which punishes hijackers, enabling each state to prosecute a hijacker if that state does not extradite them, and to deprive them from asylum from prosecution.
On December 5, 1972, the FAA issued emergency rules requiring all passengers and their carry-on baggage to be screened. Airports slowly implemented walk-through metal detectors, hand-searches and x-ray machines, to prohibit weapons and explosive devices. These rules came into effect on January 5, 1973 and were welcomed by most of the public. Between 1968 and 1977, there were approximately 41 hijackings per year.
By 1980, airport screening and greater cooperation from the international community led to fewer successful hijackings; the number of events had significantly dropped below the 1968 level. Between 1978 and 1988, there were roughly 26 incidents of hijackings a year. A new threat emerged in the 1980s and this was from organised terrorists destroying aircraft to draw attention. For instance, terrorist groups were responsible for the bombing of Air India Flight 182 over the Irish coast. In 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed flying over Scotland. Terrorist activity which included hijack attempts in the Middle East were also a cause of concern.
During the 1990s, there was relative peace in the United States airspace as the threat of domestic hijacking was seen as a distant memory. Globally, however, hijackings still persisted. Between 1993 and 2003, the highest number of hijackings occurred in 1993 (see table below). This number can be attributed to events in China where hijackers were trying to gain political asylum in Taiwan. Europe and the rest of East Asia were not immune either. On December 26, 1994, Air France Flight 8969 with 172 passengers and crew was hijacked after leaving Algiers. Authorities believed that the goal was to crash the plane into the Eiffel Tower. On June 21, 1995, All Nippon Airways Flight 857 was hijacked by a man claiming to be a member of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, demanding the release of its imprisoned leader Shoko Asahara. The incident was resolved when the police stormed the plane.
On October 17, 1996, the first hijacking that was brought to an end while airborne was carried out by four operatives of the Austrian special law enforcement unit Cobra on a Russian Aeroflot flight from Malta to Lagos, Nigeria, aboard a Tupolev Tu-154. The operatives escorted inmates detained for deportation to their homelands and were equipped with weapons and gloves. On 12 April 1999, six ELN members hijacked a Fokker 50 of Avianca Colombian Airlines Flight 9463, flying from Bogotá to Bucaramanga. Many hostages were held for more than a year, and the last hostage was finally freed 19 months after the hijacking.
On September 11, 2001, four airliners were hijacked by 19 Al-Qaeda Islamic extremists: American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77 and United Airlines Flight 93. The first two planes were deliberately crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the third was crashed into The Pentagon building. The fourth crashed in a field in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after crew and passengers attempted to overpower the hijackers. Authorities believe that the intended target was the U.S. Capitol. In total, 2,996 people perished and more than 6,000 were injured in the attacks, making the hijackings the most deadly in modern history.
Following the attacks, the U.S formed the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to handle airport screening at U.S airports. Government agencies around the world tightened their airport security, procedures and intelligence gathering. Until the September 11 attacks, there had never been an incident whereby an aircraft was used as a weapon of mass destruction. The 9/11 Commission report stated that it was always assumed that a "hijacking would take the traditional form", therefore, airline crews never had a contingency plan for a suicide-hijacking. As Patrick Smith, an airline pilot, summarizes:
One of the big ironies here is the success of the 2001 attacks had nothing to do with airport security in the first place. It was a failure of national security. What the men actually exploited was a weakness in our mind-set – a set of presumptions based on decades-long track record of hijackings. In years past, a hijacking meant a diversion, with hostage negotiations and standoffs. The only weapon that mattered was the intangible one: the element of surprise.
Throughout the mid-2000s, hijackings still occurred but there were much fewer incidents and casualties. The number of incidents had been declining, even before the September 11 attacks. One notable incident in 2006 was the hijacking of Turkish Airlines Flight 1476, flying from Tirana to Istanbul, which was seized by a man named Hakan Ekinci. The aircraft, with 107 passengers and 6 crew, made distress calls to air traffic control and the plane was escorted by military aircraft before landing safely at Brindisi, Italy. In 2007, several incidents occurred in the Middle East and Northern Africa, one of which men claimed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Towards the end of the decade, AeroMexico experienced its first terror incident when Flight 576 was hijacked by a man demanding to speak with President Calderón.
Since 2010, the Aviation Safety Network estimates there have been 15 hijackings worldwide with three fatalities. This is a considerable lower figure than in previous decades which can be attributed to greater security enhancements and awareness of September 11–style attacks. On June 29, 2012, an attempt was made to hijack Tianjin Airlines Flight GS7554 from Hotan to Ürümqi in China. More recently was the 2016 hijacking of EgyptAir Flight MS181, involving an Egyptian man who claimed to have a bomb and ordered the plane to land in Cyprus. He surrendered several hours later, after freeing the passengers and crew.
As a result of the U.S–Cuba hijacking epidemic of the late 1960s to early 1970s, international airports introduced screening technology such as metal detectors, x-ray machines and explosive detection tools. In the U.S, these rules were enforced starting from January 1973 and were eventually copied around the world. These security measures did make hijacking a "higher-risk proposition" and deter criminals in later decades. Until September 2001, the FAA set and enforced a "layered" system of defense: hijacking intelligence, passenger pre-screening, checkpoint screening and on-board security. The idea was that if one layer were later to fail, another would be able stop a hijacker from boarding a plane. However, the 9/11 Commission found that this layered approach was flawed and unsuitable to prevent the September 11 attacks. The U.S Transportation Security Administration has since strengthened this approach, with a greater emphasis on intelligence sharing.
In the history of hijackings, most incidents involved planes being forced to land at a certain destination with demands. As a result, commercial airliners adopted a "total compliance" rule which taught pilots and cabin crew to comply with the hijackers demands. Crews advise passengers to sit quietly to increase their chances of survival. The ultimate goal is to land the plane safely and let the security forces handle the situation. The FAA suggested that the longer a hijacking persisted, the more likely it would end peacefully with the hijackers reaching their goal. Although total compliance is still relevant, the events of September 11 changed this paradigm as this technique cannot prevent a suicide hijacking.
It is now evident that each hijacking situation needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Cabin crew, now aware of the severe consequences, have a greater responsibility for maintaining control of their aircraft. Most airlines also give crew members training in self-defense tactics. Ever since the 1970s, crew are taught to be vigilant for suspicious behaviour. For example, passengers who have no carry-on luggage, or are standing next to the cockpit door with fidgety movements. There have been various incidents when crew and passengers intervened to prevent attacks: on December 22, 2001, Richard Reid attempted to ignite explosives on American Airlines Flight 63. In 2009, on Northwest Flight 253, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear. In 2012, the attempted hijacking of Tianjin Airlines Flight 7554 was stopped when cabin crew placed a trolley in-front of the cockpit door and asked passengers for help.
In the September 11 attacks, crew on one of the hijacked planes went beyond their scope of training by informing the airline ground crew about the events on board. In separate phone calls, Amy Sweeney and Betty Ong provided information on seat numbers of the attackers and passenger injuries. This helped authorities identify them.
As early as 1964, the FAA required cockpit doors on commercial aircraft be kept locked during flight. In 2002, U.S Congress passed the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act, allowing pilots at U.S airlines to carry guns in the cockpit. Since 2003, these pilots are known as Federal Flight Deck Officers. It is estimated that one in 10 of the 125,000 commercial pilots are trained and armed. Also in 2002, aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus introduced a reinforced cockpit door which is resistant to gunfire and forced entry. Shortly afterwards, the FAA required operators of more than 6,000 aircraft to install tougher cockpit doors by 9 April 2003. Rules were also tightened to restrict cockpit access and make it easier for pilots to lock the doors. In 2015, a Germanwings plane was seized by the co-pilot and deliberately crashed, while the captain was out. The captain was unable to re-enter the cockpit, because the airline had already reinforced the cockpit door. The European Aviation Safety Agency issued a recommendation for airlines to ensure that at least two people, one pilot and a member of cabin crew, occupy the cockpit during flight. The FAA in the United States enforce a similar rule.
Some countries operate a marshal service, which puts members of law enforcement on high-risk flights based on intelligence. Their role is to keep passengers safe, by preventing hijackings and other criminal acts committed on a plane. Federal marshals in the U.S are required to identify themselves before boarding a plane, however, marshals of other countries often are not. According to the Congressional Research Service, the budget for the U.S Federal Air Marshal Service was US$719 million in 2007. Marshals often sit as regular passengers, at the front of the plane to allow observation of the cockpit. Despite the expansion of the marshal service, they cannot be on every plane, and they rarely face a real threat on a flight. Critics have questioned the need for them.
There is no generic or set of rules for handling a hijacking situation. Air traffic controllers are expected to exercise their best judgement and expertise when dealing with the apparent consequences of an unlawful interference/hijack.  Depending on the jurisdiction, the controller will inform the authorities such as the military who will escort the hijacked plane. Controllers are expected to keep communications to a minimum and clear the runway for a possible landing.
In January 2005, a federal law came into force in Germany, called the Luftsicherheitsgesetz, which allows "direct action by armed force" against a hijacked aircraft to prevent a September 11–style attack. However, in February 2006 the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany struck down these provisions of the law, stating such preventive measures were unconstitutional and would essentially be state-sponsored murder, even if such an act would save many more lives on the ground. The main reason behind this decision was that the state would effectively be taking the lives of innocent hostages in order to avoid a terrorist attack. The Court also ruled that the Minister of Defense is constitutionally not entitled to act in terrorism matters, as this is the duty of the state and federal police forces. President of Germany, Horst Köhler, urged judicial review of the constitutionality of the Luftsicherheitsgesetz after he signed it into law in 2005.
U.S. fighter pilots have been trained to shoot down hijacked commercial airliners if necessary. This was also attempted in 2001, just after the September 11 attacks. In 2003, the military stated that they exercise this several times a week.
Poland and Russia are among other countries that have had laws or decrees for shooting down hijacked planes. However, in September 2008 the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that the Polish rules were unconstitutional, and voided them.
The Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft, known as the Tokyo Convention, is an international treaty which entered force on December 4, 1969. As of 2015, it has been ratified by 186 parties. Article 11 of the Tokyo Convention states the following:
1. When a person on board has unlawfully committed by force or threat thereof an act of interference, seizure, or other wrongful exercise of control of an aircraft in flight or when such an act is about to be committed, Contracting States shall take all appropriate measures to restore control of the aircraft to its lawful commander or to preserve his control of the aircraft. 2. In the cases contemplated in the preceding paragraph, the Contracting State in which the aircraft lands shall permit its passengers and crew to continue their journey as soon as practicable, and shall return the aircraft and its cargo to the persons lawfully entitled to possession.
The signatories agree that if there is unlawful takeover of an aircraft, or a threat of it on their territory, then they will take all necessary measures to regain or keep control over an aircraft. The captain can also disembark a suspected person on the territory of any country, where the aircraft lands, and that country must agree to it, as stated in Articles 8 and 12 of the Convention.
The Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft (known as the Hague Convention) went into effect on October 14, 1971. As of 2013, the Convention has 185 signatories.
The Montreal Convention is a multilateral treaty adopted by a diplomatic meeting of ICAO member states in 1999. It amended important provisions of the Warsaw Convention's regime concerning compensation for the victims of air disasters.