Michael Chertoff Claims that Hijackings were Routine Prior to 9/11

I missed this interview with DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff from December. It’s all worth reading, but I want to point out where he claims that airplane hijackings were routine prior to 9/11:

What I can tell you is that in the period prior to September 12, 2001, it was a regular, routine issue to have American aircraft hijacked or blown up from time to time, whether it was Lockerbie or TSA or TWA 857 [I believe he meant TWA 847 – Joel] or 9/11 itself. And we haven’t had even a serious attempt at a hijacking or bombing on an American plane since then.

BoingBoing provides the actual facts:

According to Airsafe.com, the last flight previous to 9/11 to be hijacked with fatalities from an American destination was a Pacific Southwest Airlines flight on December 7th, 1987. “Lockerbie” refers to Pan Am Flight 103 which was destroyed by a bomb over Scotland after departing from London Heathrow International Airport on its way to JFK, with screening done—as now—by an organization other than the TSA. TWA Flight 847 departed from Athens (Ellinikon) International Airport, also not under TSA oversight.

While Wikipedia’s list of aircraft hijackings may not be comprehensive—I cannot find a complete list from the FAA, which does not seem to list hijackings, including 9/11, in its Accidents & Incidents Data—the last incident of an American flight being hijacked was in 1994, when FedEx Flight 705 was hijacked by a disgruntled employee.

The implication that hijacking or bombing of American airline flights is a regular occurrence is not borne out by history, nor does it follow that increased screening by the TSA at airports has prevented more attacks since 9/11.

Posted on January 16, 2009 at 5:24 AM37 Comments


Geoff January 16, 2009 6:45 AM

Chertoff refers to ‘American aircraft’. BoingBoing has responded with a statistic on ‘aircraft taking off from an American airport’. The two are not the same.

BoingBoing’s usually a bit better than that.

bob January 16, 2009 6:54 AM

I don’t believe hijackings were “common” even back in the “take me to Cuba” days before guns were banned in the cabin.

SteveJ January 16, 2009 6:55 AM

@Geoff: It’s still relevant.

If the only examples Chertoff can provide of US planes being hijacked, are from non-US-controlled origins, then his claim that the TSA put a sudden and total stop to hijackings in 2001 is an obvious fraud.

He seems to be saying that “another Lockerbie” would be expected, but that thanks to the TSA it didn’t occur. Either we agree that other such hijackings and bombings were to be expected (in which case it is not the TSA which prevented them) or we don’t agree (in which case it’s moot). Either way he’s bluffing.

Jeroen January 16, 2009 7:06 AM


“American” aircraft is a subset of “aircraft taking off from american airports”. So if hijackings/bombings are so rare in the latter, they are even more rare in the former.

Cannonball Jones January 16, 2009 7:25 AM

I’d love to hear Chertoff’s definition of ‘routine’ or ‘regular’. I’d say traffic accidents were regular occurrences but I’d struggle to put them in the same category as aircraft hijackings. I suppose it’s possible that dozens of flights were hijacked every day in the pre-9/11 days but no-one bothered reporting on them because they were so commonplace :p

Roy January 16, 2009 7:26 AM

Yesterday I heard a TV pundit lavish praise on the Bush Administration for preventing another 9/11, which skips over the fact that the only 9/11 ever occurred on Bush’s watch, and so if there is any judgement to be made, it should be blame for allowing the attacks.

Illusionists call this ‘misdirection’. Cf. “Magic Tricks for Dummies”.

matt a January 16, 2009 7:49 AM

Coincidentally, We haven’t had a civil war either since 9/11 but in the period before 9/11, they were “routine”. Too bad we can’t say that about recessions…

sooth sayer January 16, 2009 8:17 AM

He probably misspoke about American planes; but overall hijacking worldwide have surely come down.

Rr January 16, 2009 8:25 AM

@sooth sayer

To claim, though, that this would be a result of the TSA’s efforts is silly. I would sooner ascribe it to the passenger’s actions on flight 93 that hijackers-to-be would think twice before trying to hijack a plane.

Now, geo-socio-econo-politics changes all the time, so it’s hard to isolate variables here. Claiming any one thing made all the difference is likely a mistake at best and an outright lie at worst.

Alan January 16, 2009 8:43 AM

He could be saying that the TSA along with other such efforts internationally has protected planes worldwide including American ones, and not wording it very well.
Or he could be making stuff up to justify his well paid job.

Kashmarek January 16, 2009 9:28 AM

Typical public image pandering by homeland security and underlings. They know things are going to change soon.

Exit 14 January 16, 2009 9:37 AM

Watch for it.. this is just the start of spin while they plan the newest DHS program.

Before and post-9/11, “American” seafaring craft are subject to frequent hijackings, kidnappings, and piracy attacks.
(The “arrgh, matey!” kind of pirate.. not the BitTorrent kind)

Will the DHS be stepping up enforcement on Cruise lines?
Will you be limited to a single 6oz bottle of Coppertone?
Will you need to remove your sandals and robe for the x-ray scanner?
Will there be copycat “RayBan” bombers?

look for future DHS theater news!

TheDoctor January 16, 2009 9:41 AM

Of course Chertoff meant with “American Aircraft” aircrafts from Boeing, Lockheed, MDD …

…and with the increasing share of Airbus aircrafts….

This has nothing to do with the work of TSA either but at least the sentence is formally correct. 🙂

jdbertron January 16, 2009 9:52 AM

By all means let’s split the hair in all direction just so we can absolve this guy from coming out as a liar. Because the alternative, facing the fact that he’s not actually doing anything useful to help the security of the nation from attacks, and instead is adding more to the terrorism frenzy is, well terrifying.

Clive Robinson January 16, 2009 9:53 AM

I’m old enough to remember when not just plains but trains and boats where hijacked for “political” (not financial) reasons.

And I’ll be honest with you I can’t remember when more than two plane hijackings made it into the news in any one year. So they where never realy common events.

Lockerbie as where a number of other similar style attacks was not a hijacking.

@ Bruce,

Your comment,

‘”Lockerbie” refers to Pan Am Flight 103 which was destroyed by a bomb over Scotland after departing from London Heathrow International Airport on its way to JFK, with screening done — as now — by an organization other than the TSA.'”

Portrays a situation that is not accurate.

The bag belived to have contained the bomb was an unaccompanied bag that had been transfered onto PanAm103, via two other flights,the first was Air Malta flight KM108 from Luqa airport bound for Frankfurt , then on the PanAmb “feeder flight” PA 103A from Frankfurt to Heathrow.

The bagage transfer at Heathrow would have been carried out under the direction of PaAms staff and security, and would have been unlikley to have been checked or re scaned at Heathrow. It was partly due to the problems with transfering the bagage that PaAm 103 was late of the stand and thus the bomb exploded over Scotland and not over the sea where it would have been a few minutes later.

There is a lot wrong with the evidence presented at the original trial and infact atleast one witness has admitted in a subsiquent witness tatment to committing purjury at the trial along with theft of a timer mechanisum which he gave to investigators.

Michael Ash January 16, 2009 10:09 AM

I don’t think anyone has asked what I believe to be the most important question about this.

So let’s say he’s right, and the TSA has decreased airliner hijackings. Is it worth $7 billion a year to the TSA and uncounted billions in economic losses caused by TSA policies for a small decrease in hijackings?

derf January 16, 2009 11:03 AM

The TSA should stand up and take credit for there being no purple elephants or rabid jaguars on any flights since 9/11, too. The statistic is just about as useful.

Hijackings are down because there are no longer any sheep on the planes, not because of anything the TSA is doing. Any moron who even looks like they might stand up and say the plane is being taken over is instantly mobbed by every other passenger and their Chihuahua.

Tom Welsh January 16, 2009 11:13 AM

“The implication that hijacking or bombing of American airline flights is a regular occurrence is not borne out by history”.

That’s a polite way of putting it. I believe it is a deliberate barefaced lie, uttered in the secure knowledge that most American citizens are completely ignorant of the facts and quite willing to believe whatever they are told by authority.

Ride Fast January 16, 2009 11:32 AM

I agree with “derf at January 16, 2009 11:03 AM” and have been saying since 9/12 that instead of trying to disarm everyone there should be a baton in every seat back.

sooth sayer January 16, 2009 12:16 PM

I didn’t attribute anything to anyone .. only that hijacking’s have come down.

I wonder who’s being silly here; you seem to deny all viable causality.

Old guy January 16, 2009 12:59 PM

Locked cock-pit doors and passengers willing to fight for their lives will go a long way for the cost. I don’t think TSA will be able to take credit for the latter. Not even sure if they had a hand in the first.

Bryan Price January 16, 2009 1:20 PM

True story.

I was flying out of CMH (Columbus, OH) to go home to JAX (Jacksonville, FL) on the afternoon of 9/10/2001. As I’m checking in, I’m right next to a security checkpoint, which doesn’t have anybody in sight, not in line nor anybody to stop me from just walking through if I so desired. My thought was that we hadn’t had a hijacking in so long that security was certainly showing that it was relaxed about it and not a problem. I was flying through Newark, NJ and found that my flight had been canceled, but they were putting me on the flight PREVIOUS to it, which hadn’t gotten off the ground yet. I wait at the gate and call my newlywed wife that I’m probably going to be late due to my flight still being held. Rumor had it that there had been a big fire in Newark, that there were weather issues, a big thunderstorm. Three hours late, we take off to Newark.

Now I’ve missed my connection, and I am told that I’m now on this flight, and I have to move because it’s in a completely different terminal. So I’m hustling with my unchecked bag (very lucky that I didn’t check one!) to the gate, and have a quick conversation with the wife who’s now complaining that I should have just stayed another day with my friend there, because now she has to pick me up at god o’clock in the morning and she has to work the next day.

We get on the plane, and then we wait. Another hour and half (longer than the flight to JAX was supposed to take) and we finally get cleared for take off, and I get picked up at 3:30AM 9/11/2001.

I get awakened at 8:30 by my friend I had stayed with in Columbus, making sure that I had made it home safely, and telling me to hit CNN, because a plane had just hit it. We were still on the phone when the second plane hit. We decided that it was time to make a few more different calls, hung up and I called my best friend in Dayton, a defense contractor, and told him, get a TV on and check it out. I then made lunch plans with my wife at our favorite restaurant, and watched the TV over a two hour lunch hour.

That was one happy wife I had that now had her husband at her side and not still stuck in Columbus.

Alex January 16, 2009 1:49 PM

“”American” aircraft is a subset of “aircraft taking off from american airports”. So if hijackings/bombings are so rare in the latter, they are even more rare in the former.”

Is it? Didn’t think so. The only thing you could probably say is that most aircraft taking of from american airports are ‘American’.

Brandioch Conner January 16, 2009 4:30 PM

@Michael Ash
“So let’s say he’s right, and the TSA has decreased airliner hijackings. Is it worth $7 billion a year to the TSA and uncounted billions in economic losses caused by TSA policies for a small decrease in hijackings?”

100% agreement.
But first it has to be established that hijackings ARE reduced.

It’s all about the cost. Despite the constant claims of “it’s not a zero sum game”, there is only so much money that can be spent on this before the country faces serious economic problems.

Roy January 16, 2009 4:58 PM

I’ve been taking note of skyjacking attempts over the last several years, and I think they are becoming more common, not less. They’ve always failed in the execution, but every time prevention also failed. However, I do not recall any of them in the last four years being reported in the mainstream media. Only the Internet gives decent coverage.

Perhaps Michael Chertoff is getting his intelligence briefings from Fox News. That would go a long way to accounting for any delusions.

djb January 17, 2009 2:25 PM

I suspect that the reason there hasn’t been another 9/11 style attack or major hijacking since 2001 has more to do with the adversaries motivations, goals, capabilities, and resources than it does with TSA or DHS competence.

the8472 January 18, 2009 5:06 PM

i can just say:

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm!
Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Why thank you, honey.
Lisa: By your logic, I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Hmm. How does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work; it’s just a stupid rock!
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
Homer: Hmm... Lisa, I want to buy your rock. 

CiderMaker January 19, 2009 3:40 PM

This is being taken too seriously. Chertoff is just participating in the ongoing attempt by the outgoing administrations to position themselves as the ones who “kept America safe”. If anything bad happens during the next four years they will be quick to try drawing comparisons. It’s all just politics; that’s why he was talking to the press in the first place.

Fed Tech January 20, 2009 11:59 AM

Remember the Alamo! 🙂

Seriously, tho, the problem I find with the TSAs claims about reducing or stopping hijackings (well, one of the problems) is they provide no statistics to their claims. Check that… they make statements that “thousands” of questionable individuals are thwarted weekly, seeming to imply there are NUMBEROUS terrorists among us, and their no-fly list is the Holy Grail of airpport security.

Yet, their security policies remain secret, they will reveal no reports or information as to the validity of the “thousands” claim, and will allow no review of said information by anyone.

So, yeah, my rock keeps tigers away, and NO you cannot buy it from me.

Davi Ottenheimer January 20, 2009 1:16 PM

@ CiderMaker

Exactly right. It’s slimy posturing and marketing.

Chertoff is trying to manipulate the news and sway opinions before the change in officers is completed. He was probably given an order to get the word out.

Just another day of politics.

J.D. Abolins January 20, 2009 7:08 PM

There was a time when hijackings were somewhat common for one destination: late 1960s/early 1970s for Cuba.

This partially from my recollections and by a refresher scan of Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Cuba-US_aircraft_hijackings [with the slight risk of collateral misinformation].

Even with those hijackings, most US flights were not hijacked. Very few injuries or deaths during those incidents; the hijackers just wanted to get to Cuba.

After the early 1970s, the “take me to Cuba” hijackings almost disappeared.

kodabar February 15, 2009 10:40 AM

The odd thing is that I read the headline as meaning the opposite to its intended meaning. I understood that he was suggesting that hijackings were commonplace before 11/9 (reclaim the calendar!), but that his point was that because they were so common, that we shouldn’t sweat them now.

Evil Gumbi February 15, 2009 10:44 PM

WRT 9/11 – that event was going to happen regardless of whether Gore or Bush was in the white house. The terrorsists involved had been training in the country for over a year and had been planning this for longer than that. Those individuals and thier leaders weren’t going to suddenly change thier minds if Al Gore was president because they could “talk” to him. Nor did they plan the attack “just in case” Bush was elected. The attack was against America (and our evil western vaules such as individual freedom) and not Bush. The point is that we need to get behind the the solution and do our best to guide it in the correct direction as opposed to contiually whining at how many mistakes have been made. I’m not advocating following blindly or iginoring errors either. The fact remains that “They” (meaning people who wish to do us harm through terrorsim) are still out there and still trying and we cannot afford to ignore the threat.

I’m not sure it’s possible to measure the efficacy of the TSA in a simplistic “USA Today” manner. It’s not a simple problem to resolve, and they have only been in existence less than 8 years. When was the last time anything this big was undertaken under ANY administration and they got it right the first time? I’d say ‘never’. That said, I’m not impressed with what I have seen with my own two eyes either. Moreover, given that the only press coverage the TSA (or DHS for that matter) ever gets is when there’s a problem, an issue, or something negative, it makes some degree of sense for them to say something in thier own defense. It’s entirely too easy to snipe at people from the sidelines when somebody says something we deem as “stupid.”

I have been following Bruce since the days of fighting the Clipper chip under the first Clinton administration, and I while I don’t always agree with him completely, I can follow his logic and understand where he is coming from.

al February 17, 2009 7:31 AM

“WRT 9/11 – that event was going to happen regardless of whether Gore or Bush was in the white house. ”

Possibly true but impossible to prove. Since, however, President Bush spent his last 2 months in office giving press conferences in which he never failed to mention that his first meeting of every day was the threat analysis and therefore he was all about keeping America safe, it seems reasonable to point out that he was “on watch” for the worst domestic attack since Pearl Harbor. I’m quite sure he would have blamed Clinton had it happened a year earlier.

As for the TSA, once the airline industry stopped lobbying against locking cabin doors (on 9/12/01, at a guess) and all airline passengers worldwide changed their view of the worst case scenario, a repeat of 9/11 basically became impossible anyway.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via https://michelf.ca/projects/php-markdown/extra/

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.