Hijacking Puts American Airports On Heightened Alertness
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The terrorist hijacking of a TWA jet over the Mediterranean put U.S. airport security officials on alert Saturday even though mandatory passenger screening has sharply reduced the threat of domestic hijackings.
It has been more than a dozen years since airplane hijackings were almost common occurrences in the United States. Last year the Federal Aviation Administration reported seven hijackings of U.S. airlines in this country, compared to an average of nearly 30 a year in the early 1970s.
The sharp reduction in hijackings is attributed primarily by aviation experts to the mandatory screening of all passengers and their carry-on baggage at jet airports.
Aviation experts and pilots said in interviews if similar procedures were adopted worldwide the number of international hijackings would drop dramatically.
Despite U.S. successes in thwarting hijackers, federal officials remained uneasy Saturday, warning airports to remain cautious in case someone might try a hijacking after seeing news reports of the TWA hijacking in the Middle East.
But officials at many of the major airports said that for the most part their security programs already are largely in place.
″We do it all every day anyway,″ remarked John Braden, a spokesman for Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta. ″It works. We don’t need to improve it any.″
In Los Angeles, Lee Nichols, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Airports, said airport police were asked to be extra cautious, but the basic screening procedures did not significantly change.
Between 1969 and 1972 there were 117 hijack attempts on U.S. aircraft. But a year later when the mandatory screening, including requirements for travelers to pass through metal detectors, was put in place the number of hijackings plummeted to three, according to the FAA.
Since then there have been an average of eight hijackings a year in the United States and that figure would be considerably lower except for a surge of hijackings by Cuban refugees in 1980 and again in 1983.
About half of all hijack attempts on U.S. airliners over the past 16 years have been successfully carried out, according to the FAA. In nearly a third of the attempts the hijacker is thwarted before he actually takes over an aircraft, according to the agency.
Since the government began requiring that all air travelers be screened before boarding their planes, more than 31,000 firearms have been confiscated and 13,000 travelers have been arrested on charges of illegally possessing a firearm.
Last year there were 2,957 firearms seized at airport checkpoints and 1,285 arrests. FAA officials say many of the weapons belong to people who were unaware of the restrictions against firearms being carried aboard an airliner.
In a recent report to Congress, the FAA suggested the low number of hijackings in recent years ″clearly attests to the success of the airline passenger screening system in the United States.″
Even when hijackings occur in the United States they rarely involve gunplay. FAA spokesman Fred Farrar said he could cite only one incident in which a hijacker managed to sneak a firearm past the airport screening checkpoint in the United States.
That doesn’t include, however, an incident last December in which a convicted murdered, being transferred from the Virgin Islands, commandeered an American Airines jet after obtaining a gun that earlier had been stashed in a lavatory.
In Cleveland last year a routine airport surveillance found a woman carrying a gun as she was attempting to board a Pan American World Airways jet. She opened fire, wounding one airline employee and later was apprehended.
Despite these incidents, says Capt. Lloyd Anderson, an Eastern Airlines pilot and chairman of the Air Line Pilot Association’s security committee, the mandatory passenger screening has largely halted hijacking in this country.
The same, however, cannot be said for many other parts of the world, FAA officials said.
While there were only two hijackings in the United States during the last six months of 1984, there were 14 worldwide, according to the FAA. ″Most of these hijackings can be attributed to weak or non-existent passenger screening procedures,″ concluded FAA Administrator Donald Engen.