Hijacking (also known as skyjacking and aircraft piracy) is the take over of an aircraft, by a person or group, usually armed. In most cases the pilot is forced to fly according to the orders of the hijackers. However, in the September 11, 2001 attacks, the hijackers flew the aircraft themselves. In one case, the official pilot hijacked the plane, when he diverted his internal Air China flight to Taiwan.
Unlike the hijacking of land vehicles or ships, skyjacking is usually not perpetrated in order to rob the cargo. Most aircraft hijackings are committed to use the passengers as hostages in an effort to obtain transportation to a given location. A 2000 Afghan hijacking of an internal flight, diverted to Britain, successfully gained political asylum for the hijackers. Other hijackers may hold the passengers to ransom. The 1971 hijacking of an American plane by D. B. Cooper to gain a ransom $200,000 is one of the only unsolved hijackings in the world, another being Malaysia Airlines Flight 653. Another common motive is publicity for some cause or grievance. Since the use of hijacked planes as suicide missiles in the September 11 attacks, hijacking is treated as a different kind of security threat — though similar usages had apparently been attempted by Samuel Byck in 1974 and on Air France Flight 8969 in 1994.
Hijackings for hostages have usually followed a pattern of negotiations between the hijackers and the authorities, followed by some form of settlement - but does not always meet with the hijackers' original demands. If the hijackers' show no sign of surrendering, armed forces would storm the aircraft to rescue the hostages.
The first recorded aircraft hijack was on February 21, 1931, in Arequipa, Peru. Byron Rickards flying a Ford Tri-Motor was approached on the ground by armed revolutionaries. He refused to fly them anywhere and after a ten day stand-off Rickards was informed that the revolution was successful and he could go in return for giving one of their number a lift to Lima. Most hijackings have not been so farcical.
Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, pilots and flight attendants were trained to adopt the "Common Strategy" tactic, which was approved by the FAA. It taught crew members to comply with the hijackers demands, get the plane to land safely and then let the security forces handle the situation. Crew members advised passengers to sit quietly in order to increase their chances of survival. They were also trained not to make any 'heroic' moves that could endanger themselves or other people. The FAA realized that the longer a hijacking persisted, the more likely it will end peacefully with the hijackers reaching their goal.
September 11 presented a unique situation because it involved suicide hijackers who could fly an aircraft. The "Common Strategy" tactic was not designed to handle suicide hijackings. This resulted in the hijackers exploiting a weakness in the civil aviation security system. Since then, the "Common Strategy" policy is no longer used.
Since the September 11th attacks, the situation for passengers and hijackers has changed. As in the case of United Airlines Flight 93, where an airliner crashed into a field during a fight between passengers and hijackers, passengers now have to calculate the risks of passive cooperation, not only for themselves but for those on the ground. Future hijackers may encounter greater resistance from passengers, making a hijacking more unlikely but, if they happen, bloodier. An example of active passenger resistance occurred when passengers of American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami on 2001-12-22, helped prevent Richard Reid from igniting explosives hidden in his shoes.
Cockpit doors on most commercial airlines have been strengthened, and are now bullet resistant. In the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and France, air marshals have also been added to some flights to deter and thwart hijackers. In addition, some have proposed remote control systems for aircraft whereby no one on board would have control over the plane's flight. Airport security plays a major role in preventing hijackers. Screening passengers with metal detectors and luggage with x-ray machines prevents weapons from being taken on to an aircraft. Along with the FAA, the FBI also monitors terror suspects, and any person who is a threat to civil aviation is banned from flying.
In the case of a serious risk that an aircraft will be used for flying into a target, it may have to be shot down, killing all passengers and crew, to prevent more serious consequences.
Several states have stated that they would shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft if it can be assumed that the hijackers intend to use the aircraft in a 9/11-style attack, despite killing innocent passengers onboard. According to reports, US fighter pilots have been training to shoot down hijacked commercial airliners should it become necessary. Other countries such as Poland have enacted laws or decrees that allow the shooting down of hijacked planes.
Signed at The Hague on 16 December 1970, the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft contains 14 articles relating to what constitutes hijacking, and guidelines for what is expected of governments when dealing with hijackings. The convention does not apply to customs, law enforcement or military aircraft, thus its scope appears to exclusively encompass civilian aircraft. Importantly, the convention only comes into force if the aircraft takes off or lands in a place different than its country of registration. For aircraft with joint registration, one country is designated as the registration state for the purpose of the convention.