Hijacking: professional responses to an unextinguished threat

Published by Andrew B Brown on

The taking of hostages is a practice that has been with us since biblical times; a despicable crime that has adapted over the centuries and which continues to pose untold risk to people and corporations. Since the first recorded hijacking of an aircraft in 1931, we have seen an increase in hijackings across the globe with annual incident frequency peaking in 1969 with 86 cases. The growing number of hijackings in the 60s prompted the creation of the 1963 Tokyo Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed Onboard Aircraft – and in particular Article 11.

Shortly after, the case of Downs v. United States demonstrated the consequences of inexperience, lack of knowledge and training, combined with poor situational judgement, during an aircraft hijack hostage incident that had taken place in 1971. George Giffe had chartered an airplane to take him, his estranged wife and his accomplice to the Bahamas from Nashville. At gunpoint, he forced his wife onboard and threatened the pilots to take off; as they alerted the control tower that the aircraft was being hijacked, Giffe indicated that he had a bomb onboard.

Forced to divert for fuel, the aircraft landed in Jacksonville, Florida, where the FBI was present to respond to the incident. A ‘waiting game’ ensued; the co-pilot was released allowing him to brief the FBI on the situation on board. Following this, the armed accomplice alighted to restate Giffe’s demands, whereupon he was disarmed and taken into custody. In an attempt to prevent the aircraft from taking off, the FBI shot at the landing gear and right engine, and it was during this tactical intervention that Giffe shot and killed his estranged wife and the pilot, Brent Q. Downs, before turning the gun on himself, thus bringing the incident to an end. An end, but not closure.

Downs’ widow subsequently filed a civil suit against the FBI, claiming the bureau’s negligence had caused her husband’s death. Initially unsuccessful, she pursued an appeal, which claimed that there would have been a better way to resolve the situation that had unfolded in Jacksonville. This argument won her case and prompted a significant change in how we respond to hijacks. This was the incident that, along with the tragic events at the Munich Olympics in 1972, led to the creation of the tactical option of hostage/crisis negotiation first devised by NYPD in New York. It was further developed by the FBI as an alternative method to save lives in crisis situations.

Hostage/crisis negotiation focuses on the engagement between a highly trained negotiator and the perpetrator(s). It is a suite of tactical options that can be used by the commander in order to bring an incident to a peaceful resolution and minimise the loss of life. As a result, over the decades we have witnessed the release of many hostages from hijacked aircraft around the world.

However, as new airport and airline countermeasures continued to be implemented to deter criminal activity, the terrorist mind also innovated to think of ways to maximise impact on the aviation industry and society in general. This innovation was most evident in two incidents, which resulted in great loss of life: the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland and, obviously, the hijackings of 9/11.

But the threat of hijacking still persists, albeit not in the same numbers, with four reported cases involving one fatality last year.

“…it is imperative to understand the motivation of the captors…”

As with any hostage-taking event, it is imperative to understand the motivation of the captors. These motives can be divided into ‘expressive’ (i.e. an effort to voice and/or publicise a grievance or to express a frustrated emotion) and ‘instrumental’ (i.e. to obtain a particular outcome such as ransom).

The taking of foreign hostages has become a modus operandi for terrorist organisations, with ransom payments forming a significant part of their revenue. However, the hijacking of aircraft has attracted a wide range of captors – from terrorists, criminals and those with mental health issues. In 2016, Egyptair Flight 181 en route to Cairo from Alexandria was hijacked to Larnaca, Cyprus by a male wearing what he claimed was a suicide vest. After extended negotiations, all passengers were eventually released and the hijacker, motivated by his anger towards his ex-wife, was arrested.

“…from both a physiological and psychological perspective we can succumb to one of the Five F’s – Fight, Flight, Freeze, Flop or Friend…”

It is important to understand the variety of dynamic human reactions to a significantly stressful event such as being taken hostage. From both a physiological and psychological perspective we can succumb to one of the Five F’s – Fight, Flight, Freeze, Flop or Friend (‘friend’, in this context, referring to the psychological condition in hostage situations commonly known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ where hostages develop an emotional bond with their captors) so it is vital that we recognise this in others as being a natural reaction.

Research and experience have taught us that there are generally five stages to a hostage-taking, which are highlighted with brief guidance on how to minimise the risk posed to hostages:

  1. Capture: This is the most critical stage with the first 15-45 minutes being the most dangerous, as the captor is in a highly emotional state and fuelled by adrenaline. The objective here is to survive the stage by following instructions.
  2. Transport: If hostages are to be moved, this can be quick and often brutal as they may be bound/blindfolded and forcibly moved to another location. It is advisable to use the time to maintain an active mind by, for example, listening to captors’ voices and noting whether they are angry or calm.
  3. Holding: Hostages will experience isolation and lose track of time. Accordingly, they are encouraged to maintain a routine, keep mentally active and think positively, whilst not trying to escape unless being 100% certain of succeeding or unless in immediate danger of losing their life.
  4. Termination: In the event of a hostage rescue operation, hostages should not stand/jump up. Quite the opposite, they should try to drop to the floor, remain under cover, keep their hands above their head and, when appropriate, identify themselves.
  5. Aftermath: Many hostages feel bitter about their treatment after release. They have a need to tell their story in detail and it is important to receive a post-traumatic stress debriefing. Re-adjustment takes time, and many hostages continue to have emotional problems long after the incident itself has concluded.

This, of course, has informed on-board security with commercial airliners advising total compliance with hijackers and a goal of landing the aircraft safely to let the security forces deal with the situation. However, the 21st century shift towards martyrdom operations, as on 9/11, changed this way of thinking and we now see air marshals on-board random or specified regular flights as an additional deterrent. Indeed, many airlines are now expressly encouraging their crewmembers to fight back, a U-turn on previous advice they had been given. Combined with advances in artificial intelligence and screening technologies, along with increased deployment of biometric recognition, it has become increasingly difficult for terrorists to hijack an aircraft in the developed world; the same unfortunately cannot be said for countries with less developed security protocols where the presence of endemic corruption is also a factor in insecurity.

So, can we improve the skillset of the cabin crew and pilots to deal with such an event? The answer will always be ‘yes’, but this must be balanced against the probability of an incident occurring, the cost to the organisation and measuring the competence of those trained to act in such circumstances.

Having successfully trained the military to combat the threat of ‘green-on-blue’ attacks in Afghanistan on the less kinetic skills of de-escalation and negotiation skills, I know, from first-hand experience, that training can change behaviour to reduce conflict and mitigate the threat of its escalation into violence and importantly, in doing so, save lives.

These skills are not only applicable in a hijack situation but can also be used competently in dealing with passengers ‘in crisis’: those who suffer personality disorders and particularly those fuelled through alcohol or drug misuse. Assessing competence through immersive exercises allows crewmembers to identify those most suited to negotiation and keeping calm in a crisis; the vast majority will learn the skills but there will be a small percentage that will struggle to adapt and be paralysed by fear. This underscores the importance of responding to security challenges inflight with a team approach.

Using the FBI model of the Behavioural Change Staircase provides a good structure in the application of these skills:

Perhaps the most significant skill is the ability of the crew to take incidents from across the airline and practice them using roleplay to simulate the situations and keep their negotiation skills honed and ready to respond to the next challenging incident, thus giving them the confidence to act under pressure.

“…For 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. On January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal…” Capt. Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, US Airways Flight 1549, 2009

Also, for pilots and the wider airport security, including those in the control tower, there is always an opportunity to improve their knowledge of how they should handle such incidents. Inviting law enforcement agencies to jointly train at the airport not only gives the airline and airport staff knowledge of what might happen, it also allows them to understand that hostage rescue is a complex and dynamic activity that must only be undertaken by highly skilled teams if the lives of hostages are to be saved. The less lethal option of negotiation, whilst it may take longer to resolve poses some logistical issues at the airport, so awareness is key.

Joint training allows every specialist element to appreciate the capabilities of one another in saving lives; it also leaves less room for error. The ability of pilots to make critical decisions under pressure is highlighted by the comments of Capt. Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, pilot US Airways Flight 1549 that landed safely on the River Hudson in 2009: “For 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. On January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

Hijacking and dealing with those in crisis on-board a flight will continue to be a problem, but it is this commitment to investing in education and training of staff in the airline industry that can make a significant difference in saving lives should the worst happen.

Chief Inspector (retd.) Andrew B Brown is a renowned hostage/crisis negotiator who acts as an expert witness to judicial inquiries on the response to hostage taking and continues to teach advanced negotiation tactics to many global law enforcement agencies. He is the founder and director of www.the-right-path.com . As a Fellow of the Chartered Management and Security Institutes, he has delivered negotiation and crisis leadership skills for major corporations, public bodies. He is also director of the Emergency Planning Society.

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