A Solution From the Plane Hijackings Problem That Could Apply to the Gun Debate

From a story on politico.com by Myah Ward headlined “A solution from the 1970s for the gun debate”:

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were as many as dozens of plane hijackings a year, and no one was doing anything about it. Airport security didn’t exist. No one checked your bag. There were no metal detectors or ID checks. Sometimes you could even buy your ticket on the flight.

Brendan Koerner, the author of “The Skies Belong to Us,” calls the years between 1961 and 1972 the “golden age of hijackings.” They were accepted as a fact of life, something that came along with having airplanes.

Sound familiar? Nightly talked to Koerner about what gun control advocates could learn from the end of hijackings in the ’70s.

Many people see a thoughtline between your book and the mass shootings of today.

I was extremely conscious of that comparison while writing the book. Every time there would be a cluster of these hijackings, people would get a little freaked out. The airlines would basically shrug and say: “Well, you know, we can’t really do anything, because the only way we can do something is to institute extremely invasive security that will make the flying experience miserable for everyone, and everyone will complain about the infringement of their civil liberties. It’s just not doable.”

Time and again, there were multiple congressional hearings about this. Airline lobbyists and even people who worked at the FAA would come and testify and say, “Well, you know, we know this is a problem, but security is not a viable solution, because it’s going to make air travel impossible.”

Clearly there was a lot of financial self-interest in this stance. The airlines did a cost-benefit calculation. They ran the numbers and they basically decided, let’s just give in to everything that hijackers want. As long as we make sure that the passengers are safe and that they will get the airplane back, the cost of putting up with 25 to 30 hijackings a year is going to be far less than instituting security.

Did Americans feel a sense of hopelessness similar to today, that nothing was going to change? 

Well, they’re slightly different phenomena. The hijackings were less violent than shootings.

But there was a general feeling for a lot of that 11-year period that, well, this is just the price that we have to pay for the freedom of being able to fly places.

What changed this thinking? 

The epidemic of hijackings became more dangerous and more egregious.

Specifically, in 1972, there were a lot of hijackings that were really crazy by people who demanded money. They became progressively more violent. You had shootouts on planes. You had passengers dying.

And ultimately, in November 1972, there was a hijacking of Southern Airways Flight 49. The hijackers of that plane said unless they were paid $10 million, they were going to crash the plane into the uranium reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. That was averted, but that was really the moment when the airlines realized that their planes could be used as weapons of mass destruction, and that would be incredibly bad for business — the liability issues and the trust issues.

That’s really the moment when they dropped their resistance to these calls for universal screening. It was Jan. 5, 1973 — you had the advent of universal security screening in American airports. Everyone had to have their bag checked and go through a magnetometer. And pretty much right away, hijackings dropped to zero in America.

Why hasn’t there been a similar breakthrough for the gun reform movement?

The airlines viewed liability as a serious problem for them, which is why they eventually dropped the resistance. I don’t think gun makers and the gun lobby feel that way. They’re not under threat of losing a massive lawsuit.

What ultimately forced the hands of the airlines may not exist in the same way for gun makers because of all they’ve invested in lobbying and purchasing political power to protect themselves from liability issues.

For airlines, it was a threat of financial consequences for letting hijackings continue. The threat of we’re going to be sued, we’re going to be on the hook if someone crashes a plane. It’s really about the financial incentives.

What could gun control advocates learn from your research on the hijackings of the 1970s?

I went back in the book, and I dove specifically into the congressional hearings. You have a senator telling the head of the FAA, “Maybe we should have metal detectors.”

The FAA said: “No, there’ll be a line around the block. No one will get on their plane on time. It’s going to destroy the aviation industry.”

You can argue that aviation security saved the aviation industry, because people were starting to lose trust in it and its abject refusal to do anything about this increasingly serious, deadly problem.

We’ve proven in another crisis — not as bloody as this one, but in another serious public safety crisis in the U.S. — that when push comes to shove and we did the thing that everyone had been talking about for years, it bore fruit in a major way.

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