Survival Basics


Some of the most thrilling and fear-inspiring movie and book scenes have been skyjacking. Helpless passengers on a passenger airplane conducting a hostile takeover, while the good guys make a plan to take back control of the aircraft. The act of taking unauthorized command (and sometimes control) of an aircraft spiked in the 1960’s, prompting significant changes in our airport security measures.  The terrorist events in 2001 raised our security response even further, and airline travel is unlikely to ever return to its former levels.

How dangerous is skyjacking?

How dangerous, really, is skyjacking? What are our chances of being one of those helpless victims on an airplane? How likely are we to be injured or killed in the experience? Is there anything we can do other than sit and await our fate?

Security problems until the early 1970’s

Until the early 1970’s, skyjacking was a regularly-occurring act across North American and Europe. There were approximately 160 instances between 1961 and 1973 in the U.S.  In those days, there were no metal detectors or identity screenings—a passenger simply arrived with a ticket and was admitted passage onto the airplane. Airlines wanted to make the experience as convenient as possible for the passengers, akin to busses and trains: one could arrive at the airport minutes prior to departure without concern. Since convenience and security are mutually exclusive, this gave nefarious actors wide reign to board under false identification with unauthorized equipment.


Early skyjackers

Early skyjackers’ motivation trended toward the desire for an alternate destination. There was a slew of passengers who demanded transportation to Cuba, and they eventually turned their eyes toward more distant lands (such as Italy). For most passengers, the worst case scenario was an unplanned one-day stopover in a foreign country, where they would catch a little nightlife and board a return trip the next day.  While not strictly legal, it was difficult for the international law enforcement community to criminalize this multinational act.

Skyjacking in 1960’s

Later in the 1960’s, skyjacking took on more of a financial flavor. It became an extravagant form of kidnapping, in which the perpetrator would rob the passengers or demand a ransom for the safe return of passengers. Some such skyjackers even exited the aircraft mid-flight (with parachute) rather than meet the awaiting authorities on the tarmac! Insiders (aircrew and security personnel) began taking a more active role as skyjackers. Airlines were slow to respond with enhanced security, as their perception of the cost-benefit analysis still favored the speed and convenience their passengers enjoyed while flying the friendly skies (case in point: the costs of x-rays and metal detectors dwarfed the costs of spooling up an unanticipated return flight).

Use of an airplane for mass destruction

The use of an airplane for mass destruction was first realized in 1972, as the ransomers’ “or else” criteriaincluded crashing into a U.S. nuclear facility. Being too dangerous to ignore, the FAA and airlines began instituting security measures that decreased the successful skyjackings from 15-30 per year down to the single digits (90% reduction in three years).

Skyjacking for sociopolitical motives

Skyjacking for sociopolitical motives did not reach the front pages until 1985, which was the first occurrence of religion-inspired terrorist activity using an airplane and its passengers as the weapon. This phenomenon reached its peak in the U.S. in 2001, and has temporarily changed our paradigm of skyjackers.  Statistically, the sociopolitical motivation is the most lethal for passengers, as one study estimates that approximately one-third of these incidents ends with fatalities.

Skyjacking after 2001

The good news for us passengers is that, for U.S. domestic flights, the grim events of 2001 were an apex for skyjacking, and there has not been a “successful” occurrence in this country since that day.  Of the ~20 international events since then (average of one per year, globally), the vast majority were peacefully resolved with the skyjackers in custody, and in only a few instances did violence erupt that lead to crewmember injury or perpetrator fatality. 

What does this mean for us, should we find ourselves in this situation?  It is true that there is a handful of skyjacking events in which the passengers subdued the would-be skyjacker.  In these instances, the skyjacker was ill-armed, worked alone, and did not have a “backup plan” (e.g. timed explosives).  This is a risky game to play: how do the passengers know if all three conditions are met before instigating violence?

Peacefully allow a situation to carry itself out

Survival is a game of numbers, and the statistics favor those who peacefully allow a situation to carry itself out.  The vast majority of skyjacking events in the last 50 years were little more than an inconvenience to the passengers.  The best advice here is to simply follow instructions, and enjoy an unplanned stopover in a new city.

What if skyjacker successfully takes command of an aircraft

In the rare event that a skyjacker successfully takes command of an aircraft, and the even rarer event that it becomes evident that the aircraft is meant as a destructive weapon, then violent action may be the only path toward survival. This is why you likely have an Air Marshal on board—his purpose is to react to this extremely-rare scenario. Try to stay out of his way—federal officers try not to shoot through civilians to hit their targets.

What if you do not have an Air Marshal?

In the even more unlikely event that you do not have an Air Marshal, or that he becomes incapacitated, this is when the passengers themselves become their own last line of defense. Working together with the strangers around you is the key to success.  Think of this as the inverse of being mugged—the weapons are carried by the minority of the members involved.  Whether the weapon is a pen, knife, or firearm, the closest defenders are very likely to suffer injury. If you elect to participate in an active defense, you must be prepared for this eventuality. But, should enough passengers participate in the defense, and the skyjackers don’t have a “backup plan”, then you have a reasonable chance of reducing the threat to the point that aircraft control is returned to its rightful owners.

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Unless the rightful owners (the pilots) have themselves become casualties.  If that is the case, then remember: push the stick forward to make trees get bigger, and pull the stick back to make trees get smaller.

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