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Airline Hijacking: Causes and Motives Behind It Case Study

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Updated: Jun 8th, 2022


With the rapid growth of modern society, the aviation industry is considered the most commonly used means of transportation for travel destinations or business purposes. However, such development of aviation promotes the increased number of challenges for the industry workers and consumers. Aviation security is a significant issue concerning safeguarding fundamental passenger rights. More specifically, flight security encompasses all the possible risks and dangers to the safe air travel that can be of different nature and a root cause. According to Pozzo (2018), airline safety confronts such critical cases, wherein the integrity of a flight can be threatened by the actually performed or merely planned “unlawful acts against civil aviation” (p. 43). With that said, this study examines the leading causes of airline hijacking or unlawful interference, as well as the motives behind such events that jeopardize international air security.

Defining the Issue of Unlawful Interference Offence

Airline hijacking or unlawful seizure of aircraft is the most crucial area of international civil aviation law, which lays the groundwork for the major safety concern and produces constant research on its potential control. The first recorded occurrence of the airline hijacking took place in Peru in 1930 (Abeyratne, 2018). It is important to note that any ideas of the possible aircraft crimes were solely imaginary. However, since that instance in Peru, the notion of airline offense was defined as seizure by force, control of an aircraft in flight by a person on board, aircraft piracy, or aircraft hijacking. The offense of unlawful interference with international civil air transport is a broader concept that encompasses:

  • airline hijacking,
  • aviation sabotage that leads to explosions in flight or on the ground,
  • missile attacks against airplane,
  • armed assaults on airports, passengers, or other aerial property,
  • illegal transportation of narcotics by air and the criminal implications behind it.

The matter of serious concern implies that despite the enhanced methods of combating international air security, acts of unlawful interference with civil aviation continue adversely affecting the safety and efficiency levels of international airlines. More importantly, such cases endanger the lives of aircraft passengers, as well as the flight crews, who are involved in air travel. Therefore, the international community should be primarily focused on dealing with unlawful interference with civil aviation that undermines the airline safety and security on the global level. As a rule, the crux of the offense is dignified with the key issue of legitimacy as long as the actions of the offender are justified. Another critical aspect is that the security of international civil aviation is inherent to the global economy and international co-operation, which is why it has to be protected for the common good.

The Analysis of the Problem and its Judicial Recognition

The problem of aviation security covers a broad spectrum of international connections, economic and political factors, and human safety. To be more specific, the global community is connected by air transportation with the aid of “advanced communications technology” that establishes the primary linkages between people (Abeyratne, 2018, p. 99). The airline hijacking attacks engage the variety of underlying reasons and, thus, requires political, legislative, and operational initiatives to get involved in the public policy. These reasons include the promotion of terrorist goals to achieve traditional criminal gain, escape from the criminal proceedings within a country, or the consequences of the behavioral reaction of the deranged mind of the offender. Considering the broad context of the mentioned causes, it is essential to provide an in-depth analysis of unlawful interference in terms of the highly competitive and evolving airline industry.

Since the first wave of airline hijacking in 1947 in Turkey and all the following events, the international policies must change the existing status quo and consider the universal standards of conduct on a multilateral basis. Over the past three decades, the issue of aviation terrorism dramatically increased and expanded its impact within the political arena. Regarding the legislative recognition of aviation security, the ICAO member states (International Civil Aviation Organization) implemented and ratified several international conventions. They include “the Tokyo, The Hague, and the Montreal Conventions” (Blum, 2017, p. 10). The very beginning of the aviation hijacking happened after World War II when the unlawful interference was mainly caused by the way of political asylum in a foreign country. However, the aircraft seizure and hijacking climate unexpectedly changed after the 1960s with the new motives behind it.

Fundamental Reasons for Targeted Civil Aviation Hijacking

From the beginning of commercial aviation, terrorists used the aviation system for committing their attacks and offense unlawful seizures of the system as a target on its own behalf. It should be emphasized that the airports were previously considered relatively easy targets for terrorist attacks regarding the scope of the public area. As a result, the international aviation system faced a significant number of minor and major aircraft hijacking starting from the 1910s that reoccurred every decade. However, due to critical technological advancements and progress, the aircraft systems were strengthened as targets during the past decades. This implies the improved security measures, although airports remained the public-oriented areas that are, to a certain extent, accessible to anyone, hence making them preferred objectives for the offenders.

Some of the terrifying hijacking instances cover the period from the second half of the 1960s to the end of the twentieth century, which can be explained by the insufficient air security systems and international recognition of the problem. Nevertheless, the modern safety systems and enhanced control of air transport security only provoke new methods for unlawful interference attacks. Regarding its prolonged history, aviation terrorism is defined as a political act against civil air transportation performed by non-state actors. They systematically jeopardize the civilians, consciously use violence for terror, and sometimes pressure the authorities for personal demands.

The Reasons for Targeting the Civil Aviation

Understanding the root causes of aviation terrorists is vital for developing countermeasures to improve system protection and decrease the number of successful terrorist attacks. With that said, Duchesneau & Langlois (2017), who take leading positions at Aviation Strategies International, identified “seven fundamental reasons” that clarify why terrorists have targeted civil aviation (p. 343). While they explain the motives behind the airline hijacking, they also describe the events that follow such threatening events. The reasons imply that such acts of unlawful interference:

  • design a global reach, even if it has a local nature,
  • promote the fast transmission of information, increasing audience and impact,
  • devalue the manifestation of the state power that the airlines and airports represent,
  • result in the powerful economic consequences beyond civil aviation,
  • with high lethal potential, they have a strong likelihood of affecting residents of different nationalities,
  • prevent interconnectivity by disordering the global air transport,
  • provide the ability to make a powerful statement to world leaders instantly.

The Deep-Rooted Causes of Airline Hijacking

The predominant part of the air security research literature is explaining the linkage between the stimulus and offenders’ motivation to commit unlawful interference. Moreover, most researchers agree on two possible links that provoke individuals to engage in aircraft hijackings. One of the most common root causes of such unlawful acts against aviation safety is grounded in the issue of the mental illness of oneself and the desire for publicity. There is a shared assumption that publicity encourages the increased number of hijacking instances and is often associated with the statement that hijackers are mentally ill. To be more specific, many authors assume that hijackers are individuals who pursue publicity, which is caused by psychological instability or low self-confidence. Thus, the publicity itself is one of the significant motives for airline hijackings. As a result, mental problems are considered as a prerequisite to the impact of news media coverage. Such perception of the air safety threat is part of a general opinion that aircraft hijackers are people with mental disorders.

Given that air transport and travel have a strong international nature, airline hijacking and unlawful interference act adversely influence the interests of many states and various nationalities. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance for the common legislative framework to be conducted at the international level to identify and prevent these criminal activities. This highlights the need for specific initiatives developed to impede acts of unlawful interference. Such initiatives are dated back to the 1960s when the hijackings of the in-flight air cargos were primarily committed by politically motivated groups or individuals with mental illnesses (Pozzo, 2018). For example, on 19 July 1960, a man hijacked the Trans Australia Airlines Flight 408 and threatened to blow up the airplane. Fortunately, his attempt resulted in no harm to the aircraft or the passengers on board as the offender was disarmed successfully by a crew member and a passenger.

The other critical condition for the airline hijacking and unlawful interference acts implies the goal-seeking approach. Such a statement means that there is no point in presupposing that aviation security offenders are mentally ill individuals or that they have the publicity motive to predict provoking effects of media exposure. It cannot be excluded that aircraft hijackers behave rationally in trying to achieve particular goals or to address specific types of personal or political problems. As an example, based on the statistics, a considerable number of aircraft hijackers from the United States to Cuba were of Cuban origin. Hence, their hijacking motives were, without a doubt, a solution to returning to a home, which was complicated to reach by conventional means. With that said, the news media coverage serves as both the advertising approach of hijacking and a possible means of solving their problems and, therefore, encouraging the attempts. Despite the numerous acts of hijacking and bombings, the year 1968 is considered a turning point in airline hijacking history.

Political Motive

It is possible to say that, before this period, the criminal acts against aviation security were implemented for individual motives based on two types. The first type implied that the reason for airline hijacking involved escaping to a better life from behind the “iron curtain” or from Cuba. The second type of hijacking included the attacks committed by individuals with personal motives, such as the robbery or the collection of insurance. However, Pozzo (2018) discusses a very different motive for the criminal interference offense that resulted in the hijacking of an El Al Flight by three members of PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). The instance occurred on 23 July 1968 and had a strong political nature of the motive. After negations that lasted for forty days, passengers and aviation crew aboard were released with the established precedent. In addition to personal goals, revenge, or money, criminal attacks on airplanes can be planned to reach political objectives. They are conducted in order to attract attention to the event and achieve the release of the political prisoners.

As it became evident that aircraft seizures could facilitate the political targets, it was unavoidable for aviation security to face the enhanced violent attacks and criminal operations by the terrorist organizations. In December 1988, the tragic incident happened to the Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, with the loss of lives of 259 passengers and a crew, and 11 local people. Such a terrifying airline hijacking marked another turning point defined by the political goal. As described by Pozzo (2018), the primary aim was to sow terror and impose psychological and economic damage. However, the new era in aviation security was significantly impacted by the 9/11 attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. By coming at a high cost of thousands of innocent lives and harsh political consequences for the entire world, the 9/11 disaster revealed the extent to which terrorists can seize the aviation system. The dramatic events only furthered the terrorists’ goals and also forced the United States, as well as other leading states, to focus on multiple weak points that characterized the existing air transportation system.


The aviation system and the benefits of air travel represent the extensive sector of international connections and global activity. However, such critical basics of the air transport industry, including passengers, air cargo, and general aviation, serve as the primary target for horrifying terrorist attacks and airline hijackings. Since the 1960s, air hijackings became a preferred tactic of many revolutionary groups (Phillips, 2016). Understanding the common ground of the unlawful interference acts against civil aviation is indeed a complex issue to examine with regard to the number of such instances per year despite the enhanced aviation security. It might be ironic, but the modified and strengthened air security measures provoke new complicated hijacking operations. Notwithstanding the in-depth approach of the following analysis, it is yet hard to cover all the aircraft hijacking events that occurred since the 1930s.

Many researchers come into agreement about three general causes and motives for the airplane attacks. They include individual purposes, such as robbery or escape, mental illness diagnosis of the offender, or acts committed by politically motivated groups. As the events changed the mindset of society and increased international awareness, people currently face more aggressive security control and response from aircrew and passengers. With the broad scope and global nature of aviation, it is essential to recognize that every criminal act against air transport safety is different. However, airline hijackings shaped the current aviation system and security measures that aim to preserve civil liberties.


Abeyratne, R. I. R. (2018). Aviation security: Legal and regulatory aspects. Routledge.

Blum, A. M. (2017). Aviation terrorism with particular reference to the air carrier’s liability for personal damages resulting from hijackings pursuant to Art. 17 of the Warsaw Convention [Master’s thesis, Lancaster University]. GRIN Verlag.

Duchesneau, J., & Langlois, M. (2017). Airport attacks: The critical role airports can play in combatting terrorism. Journal of Airport Management, 11(4), 342–354.

Phillips, K. (2016). . ABC: Rear Vision.

Pozzo, F. R. D. (2018). International and EU legal frameworks of aviation security. In J. S. Szyliowicz & L. Zamparini (Eds.), Air transport security (pp. 43–62). Edward Elgar Publishing.

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