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Airplane Hijacking

The first U.S. airplane hijacking occurred in 1961. The number of such incidents, also known as skyjackings or air piracies, grew during the 1960s, with 40 attempts made in 1969. Many of the early hijacking incidents involved persons seeking to divert airplanes to Cuba, where they could gain ASYLUM. These hijackings became so numerous that the phrase "Take me to Havana" entered popular culture.

In 1973, the United States and Cuba were able to reach an agreement that allows either country to request the EXTRADITION of a hijacker. The agreement came about through an exchange of diplomatic notes. It was in Cuba's interest to make the agreement because many Cubans had hijacked planes from Cuba and forced them to fly to the United States. The agreement allows either country to take into account extenuating circumstances when the hijackers acted "for strictly political reasons and were in real and imminent danger of death without a viable alternative, provided there was no financial EXTORTION or physical injury" to crew, passengers, or other persons (12 I.L.M. 370–76, No. 2 [March 1973]).

In addition to this agreement, the United States, in 1961, made the hijacking of an airplane a federal crime. Under the Aircraft Piracy Act (18 U.S.C.A. § 32), the attempted or successful execution of the following actions is considered hijacking: damaging an aircraft; placing or bringing a destructive device or substance on an aircraft; damaging or interfering with an air navigation facility, or equipment and property used in connection with the operation of an aircraft; committing an act of violence against or otherwise injuring an individual on an aircraft; or making threats or statements that they know are false against or about the safety of an aircraft that is already in flight.

Hijacking has not been confined to the United States and Cuba. In 1970, hijackers seized more than 90 planes around the world. The growth of international TERRORISM, specifically in the Middle East, led to widely publicized hijackings. In these situations hijackers sought the satisfaction of political demands and a platform to air their views. In 1970, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked three airliners and flew two of them to an airstrip in the desert near Amman, Jordan, while blowing up the third in Cairo, Egypt after releasing the passengers and crew. Several days later another plane was hijacked. The hijackers demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in European prisons and in Israeli jails. When their demands were not met, they removed the passengers from the airliners and destroyed the planes one by one.

Faced with increased numbers of air hijackings, the international community sought to negotiate agreements that would prevent hijackers from finding safe haven. The 1970 Hague Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft (22 U.S.T. 1641, T.I.A.S. 7192 [effective in the United States in 1971]) deals specifically with the hijacking of aircraft in flight. The 1971 Montreal Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation (24 U.S.T. 564, T.I.A.S. 7570 [effective in the United States in 1973]) addresses attacks on or sabotage of civil aircraft either in flight or on the ground, or destruction of or damage to air navigation facilities when this is likely to endanger the safety of aircraft in flight. Either the state of registration or the state in which the aircraft lands can exercise jurisdiction. The state having the hijackers in custody must prosecute or extradite them. A state may decline to extradite if it considers the offense political, or may prefer not to extradite to a state that imposes the death penalty, but in either of these cases, it is obligated to prosecute the offenders.

The United States passed the Antihijacking Act of 1974 (49 U.S.C.A. § 1301 et seq.) to implement these international conventions. This act seeks to prevent nations from adopting a permissive posture toward illegal activities such as the commandeering of aircraft, by providing penalties for hijackers and for nations that shield or fail to take adequate precautions against hijackers. The act gives the president the power to terminate air service between an offending nation and the United States if the president determines that the offending nation has acted inconsistently with its obligations under the antihijacking conventions. Since the signing of these international conventions in the 1970s, airplane hijacking fell sharply, especially in the United States.

Hijacking, however, reached a new level on September 11, 2001, when terrorists commandeered four commercial airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania. The United States was stunned and the definition of hijacking came into serious question. Prior to the attacks, experts generally found that if pilots adhered to the hijackers' demands, violence was less likely to occur. In this case, however, there was no negotiation. In effect, the hijackers proved that planes can be used as missiles, causing mass violence not only to those aboard a plane, but to thousands of others located in or near a target of terrorism. As a result, national security became an immediate priority, and regulations and security measures were quickly implemented in the hopes of preventing similar attacks.

Prior to September 11, airline security fell under the purview of the FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION (FAA). After the attacks, Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Act (Pub. L. No. 107-71; codifed at 49 U.S.C.A. §§ 40101 et. seq.), which among other things transferred this authority from the FAA to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). One year later, Congress enacted the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-296 (codified in scattered sections of 6 U.S.C.A.), which included additional provisions for the prevention of hijacking. For example, Title XIV of the act, known as the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act, qualified certain volunteer pilots as federal law enforcement officers in order to protect cockpits in the case of an attempted hijacking.

New approaches to the prevention of airline hijacking led to a tightening of security in U.S. airports. Persons using an airport must now generally show identification several times before boarding a plane. And, because the terrorists in the SEPTEMBER 11 ATTACKS used a common household item (box cutters), many articles that could potentially be used as a weapon are now prohibited or restricted.

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