Published 1969 — Download PDF of the original newspaper column
Byrd's-Eye View By U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd AIRLINER HIJACKING The U.S. and Cuba ought to take immediate steps to turn free rides to Havana into one-way tickets to a jail cell. In the period January 1, 1968, to February 7, 1969, 22 U.S. commercial airliners have been diverted to Havana. This piracy not only presents a physical danger to the passengers and crew aboard these planes, but also costs money to the airlines and the U.S. Government. The Air Transport Association estimates the loss to the airlines at about $18,000 per plane hijacked, which does not take into account any indirect loss through a drop in patronage. The Federal Aviation Administration is working to halt hijackings. FAA inspectors ride randomly selected flights as armed guards. But they cannot ride all flights, as some 170,000 trips a year operate in and out of Florida. Moreover, a gun battle thousands of feet above the earth could result in a plane crash. Research is underway to create devices to detect weapons on the persons of boarding passengers, but this research has not gotten far due to difficulties involved, such as differentiating between a deadly weapon and a cigarette lighter, or some other legitimate metallic object a passenger might carry. Some impractical suggestions include: (1) building an American-based replica of Havana to fool a hijacker into thinking he had, indeed, gone to Cuba; (2) having all passengers disrobe before boarding a plane and don only a shapeless, pocket-less smock on board; (3) having the hijacker drop through a trapdoor into the baggage compartment. I believe the most feasible measure to end airline piracy may be an agreement between the U.S. and Cuba to return all hijackers for prosecution. The State Department is presently involved in such negotiations, although diplomatic relations have been severed between the two countries. There is no evidence that Castro welcomes air pirates with open arms. In fact, to the contrary, most are thrown into Cuban jails until the Cubans are satisfied they are not U.S. spies. Even then, the lot of the typical hijacker is likely to be hard labor on a state-run plantation. Only when it is crystal clear to a potential hijacker that he will be returned to the U.S. to face a possible death sentence, can we be sure of a permanent diminution of plane hijackings to Cuba. Some positive steps must be taken before an air tragedy occurs from which possible international repercussions could result.