AIRPORT SECURITYD.B. Cooper, the Changing Nature of Hijackings and the Foundation for Today’s Airport Security

By Janet Bednarek

Published 11 July 2022

Many Americans may associate airport security with 9/11, but it was a wave of hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s that laid the foundation for today’s airport security protocols. Especially, the 24 November 1971 hijacking of a Northwest Orient 727 plane, after take-off from Portland, Oregon, by a man known to the American public as D. B. Cooper, captured the public’s imagination, and drove the U.S. government to establish the first anti-hijacking security protocols.

Though many Americans may associate airport security with 9/11, it was a wave of hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s that laid the foundation for today’s airport security protocols.

During that period, a hijacking occurred, on average, once every five days globally. The U.S. dealt with its own spate of mile-high crimes, convincing reluctant government officials and airport executives to adopt the first important airport security protocols.

The subject of a new Netflix docuseries, hijacker D.B. Cooper emerged as something of a folk hero during this era. While other more violent hijackings might have played a bigger role in prompting early airport security measures, it was the saga of Cooper that captured the imagination of the American public – and helped transform the perception of the overall threat hijackings posed to U.S. air travel and national security.

Incidents Become Impossible to Ignore
The first airplane hijacking happened in 1931 in Peru. Armed revolutionaries approached the grounded plane of pilot Byron Richards and demanded that he fly them over Lima so they could drop propaganda leaflets. Richards refused, and a 10-day standoff ensued before he was eventually released.

That remained a somewhat isolated incident until the late 1940s and 1950s, when several people hijacked airplanes to escape from Eastern Europe to the West. In the context of the Cold War, Western governments granted these hijackers political asylum. Importantly, none of the airplanes hijacked were flown by U.S. carriers.

Beginning in the early 1960s, however, hijackers began targeting U.S. airlines. Most of these individuals were Cubans living in the U.S. who, for one reason or another, wished to return to their native land and were otherwise blocked due to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

U.S. officials responded by officially and specifically making hijacking a federal crime. Though the new law didn’t stop hijackings altogether, the crime remained relatively rare. When they did occur, they usually didn’t involve much violence.

Officials wanted to downplay hijackings as much as possible, and the best way to do this was to simply give the hijacker what they wanted to avert the loss of life. Above all, airline executives wanted to avoid deterring people from flying, so they resisted the implementation of anxiety-inducing security protocols.