Earlier today, EgyptAir Flight MS181 from Alexandria to Cairo was hijacked…for some reason. The plane was diverted to Cyprus on the orders of the hijacker, identified by the Cyprus Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Seif Eldin Mustafa, who claimed to have an explosive belt which was later deemed to be fake. There was a stand-off as Mustafa released passengers and negotiated with Cypriot officials, but eventually the situation came to a peaceful end.
The Egyptian and Cypriot authorities quickly made statements that the hijacking was not connected to terrorism, but it was a reminder that hijackings aren't all that unusual and used to be sort of commonplace. That's not the case anymore. In 2009, Nate Silver crunched ten-years-worth of U.S. Bureau of Transportation data:
Over the past decade, according to BTS, there have been 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States. Dividing by six, we get one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 departures.
These departures flew a collective 69,415,786,000 miles. That means there has been one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown. This distance is equivalent to 1,459,664 trips around the diameter of the Earth, 24,218 round trips to the Moon, or two round trips to Neptune.
Those numbers, and the numbers of all Americans being affected by terrorism, not just airplane hijacking, have only gone down in the years since the Silver story.
However, in the early 1960s, the chances of being on an airplane that was hijacked was much, much higher.
The federal government started overseeing aviation in 1958 and at that time, you could basically waltz onto a plane and never show anyone your ticket. On May 1, 1961 a Miami electrician, Antulio Ramirez Ortiz, attempted to hijack a plane and take it to Havana, claiming he had been hired (by Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo) to assassinate Fidel Castro and wanted to warn him. Ortiz was given asylum in Cuba and the plane was returned.
That kicked off a wave of hijackings, which gradually transformed into high-level kidnappings and demands for ransom, shying away from political motivations. All the while, the airlines refused to implement extra security measures—it was cheaper to divert a plane to Havana than hire security personnel and install x-ray machines.
The period between 1968 and 1972 was the heyday of hijacking in the U.S., according to The Skies Belong To Us, a 2013 look at the history of hijackings by Wired's Brendan Koerner—they were so common that air traffic controllers in Miami were given direct lines to Havana because so many hijackers demanded to go there. Overall, there were over 130 hijackings in this five-year period.
Then Southern Airways Flight 49 was hijacked.
On November 10, 1972, Louis Moore and two accomplices, armed with guns and grenades, took over a plane and demanded it be taken to Detroit where they'd be given $10 million dollars. If their demands weren't met, they'd fly the plane into the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Oak Ridge, about 20 miles outside Knoxville, has a nuclear reactor. Southern Airlines duped the three hijackers with $2 million in ransom, thinking the physical appearance of the money would convince them it was their complete haul.
The gamble paid off: the hijackers were convinced they won, but did not release their hostages. They flew to Cuba and were turned away. The plane was fired upon by FBI agents when it attempted to land outside Orlando, but the hijackers managed to return to Havana where the hijackers were arrested by the Cuban police.
The damage was done though. Hijackers could easily turn the airplanes into weapons like the kamikaze pilots of World War II. A hijacking wasn't a mild inconvenience for the passengers and crew who were forced to spend some time in Cuba before going back to the U.S. Extra security was needed and on January 5, 1973, all airplane passengers began to be physically screened before boarding.
In the 1970s and 1980s, hijackings became closely associated with Islamic terrorism, and that's pretty much stayed the same, even as the number of incidents have gone down. Airplanes continued to be hijacked (and still do), but they became scarier, or more notable because of the decreasing frequency: TWA Flight 847 and the rescue at Entebbe in Uganda after Air France Flight 139 certainly come to mind. From 1991 until September 11, 2001, there were no hijackings of commercial flights in American airspace, according to Koerner's book.
However, the reason the hijackings have become less and less of an event is because of the security measures that passengers abhor and the ones that the airline industry resisted for so long.
The EgyptAir hijacking was a brief, scary reminder of how things used to be.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org