‘The Skies Belong To Us’ And Americans’ Short Memories About Airport Security

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Credit: Mother Jones

Credit: Mother Jones

“By seizing a jet as it hurtled across the nation’s most exotic frontier, a lone skyjacker could instantly command an audience of millions,” Brendan I. Koerner writes towards the beginning of The Skies Belong To Us, his exploration of what he describes as an epidemic of skyjacking that plagued in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. “There was no more spectacular way for the marginalized to feel the rush of power.” That sentiment makes all the sense in the post-September 11 world. But the book, which is one of the most intriguing pieces of non-fiction I’ve read this year, is a fascinating examination of what it took to convince both lawmakers and airlines to make policies to address that obvious temptation, and the lifecycle of the conviction that preventing skyjacking was worth investments of time, money and personnel. It’s a riveting story of a single, climactic hijacking, but it’s also a meditation on the short span of political and policy memory.

Part of the reason Koerner describes skyjacking in epidemiological terms (as have many other writers about crime in general) is that, as he explains, it seemed to spread from one class of people to another with viral quickness. First, there were skyjackers who were simply disaffected, like Leon Bearden, who hijacked a plane to Cuba with his son, because “I’m just fed up. I don’t want to be an American anymore.” Later, Koerner explained, “skyjacking came to be viewed as a phenomenon unique to the Communist realm, an option of last resort for those who could no longer tolerate the dictatorship of the proletariat.” When skyjackers started demanding ransoms, the airline industry scrambled to figure out how to respond because the business “had always assumed that skyjackers were interested solely in obtaining passage to a foreign land.” When Louis Moore hijacked Southern Airways Flight 49 in 1972 and threatened to crash the plane, it appeared to be the first time anyone had considered that skyjackers might want to turn planes into weapons.

Because both airlines and the federal government were slow to grasp that skyjacking was a tactic that could be employed by any class of person to any number of ends, they were reluctant to make policies that might affect other travelers simply to prevent air piracy. In the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, Koerner explains, “Seizing control of an American aircraft was…perfectly legal, at least according to the letter of the law.” Federal Aviation Administration director-turned-lobbyist Najeeb Halaby rejected the idea of screening passengers on the grounds that it couldn’t be done in a time-effective fashion, saying “Can you imagine the line that would form from the ticket counter in Miami if everyone had to submit to police inspections?” When Florida Senator George Smathers proposed the use of metal detectors at airports, Koerner explains “the industry was convinced that enduring periodic skyjackings to Cuba was financially preferable to implementing invasive security at all of America’s airports.” A TWA spokesman suggested it was ridiculous to “Restrict everyone from the terminal except those who have a ticket? Stop everyone from entering the airport area except those who have a ticket?”

When airlines believed that skyjackers were only interested in ransoms or passage to Cuba (for a while a preferred destination of American hijackers, even though Fidel Castro often had hijackers sent to work on sugar plantations rather than heralding them as heroes of the revolution), at one company “all cockpits were equipped with charts of the Caribbean Sea, regardless of a flight’s intended destination. Pilots were briefed on landing procedures for José Martí International Airport and issued phrase cards to help them communicate with Spanish-speaking hijackers. (The phrases to which a pilot could point included translations for ‘I must open my flight bag for maps’ and ‘Aircraft has mechanical problems— can’t make Cuba.’)”

Even when they were prodded to act, airlines could be decidedly lackadaisical. Check-in clerks, who were supposed to monitor the behavior of passengers for suspicious signs, sometimes skipped their checklists or got overwhelmed and didn’t really have a chance to do them properly. That discretion prevented other screenings, too. As Koerner explains, “America’s airports handled roughly 15,000 commercial flights per day, yet they had just 350 functioning detectors among them. These handheld devices had to be shuffled from gate to gate as planes prepared to board, a virtually impossible task at the busiest airports. Rather than delay a flight’s departure until a detector arrived, ticket agents usually skipped screening altogether.”

And when President Nixon ordered a new air security regime after Moore’s highjacking, cost controls still ruled: “The idea for a new Department of Transportation police force was scrapped, as was the notion of making the airlines use salaried personnel to operate metal detectors and X-ray machines. The airlines were instead permitted to contract their security to private firms— a unique arrangement in the developed world.” That agreement meant that, as the memory of the so-called Golden Age of Skyjackings faded, so did the commitment to security. Koerner writes that “Airlines came to view security as an expensive nuisance ripe for trimming. They doled out contracts to private firms that submitted absurdly low bids; those firms, in turn, routinely provided less personnel than promised, or hired screeners whose only training consisted of watching twenty-minute instructional videos. By 2000 the average salary of an airport security officer was just $ 12,000.” In the epidemic model, the airlines decided that what skyjackings needed were a course of penicillin rather than a vaccine.

We can debate whether the post-September 11 federalization of airport security, the implementation of full-body scanners, and liquid restrictions are an overreach in response. But in addition to bureaucratic indifference, Koerner notes that the popular response to foiling skyjackings was extremely positive. A task force on skyjackings got all manner of ideas from the public, including “installing trapdoors outside cockpits, arming stewardesses with tranquilizer darts, making passengers wear boxing gloves so they couldn’t grip guns, playing the Cuban national anthem before takeoff and then arresting anyone who knew the lyrics. The most popular suggestion was for the FAA to build a mock version of José Martí International Airport in a South Florida field, so that skyjackers could be duped into thinking they had reached Havana.”

When the government settled on more prosaic screenings and bag inspections, “selectees rarely seemed to mind the extra scrutiny; when interviewed afterward, most said they were just happy to know that something was finally being done to prevent hijackings.” And when airlines hiked up prices to pay for screeners at every airport, “Customers did not seem to mind shouldering the fiscal burden; despite the higher ticket prices, the number of airline passengers would increase by a healthy 7 percent in 1973.” The dream of air travel as a glamorous experience in and of itself has faded, whether passengers were looking forward to the free drinks and handsome pilots, or the prospect of an exciting temporary diversion to Cuba before making it to their finale destination. The point now is the destination, and if we get there safe, it seems like we’ll settle for that.