It was once the nightmare of air travelers the world over: a passenger jet parked in a remote corner of an airport surrounded by armed police and ambulances.
The frightening scene that played out last week at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport turned out to be a false alarm. However, it revived memories of an aviation era when hijackings were more common than in the post-Sept. 11 world of ultra-tight security checks at airport gates, air marshals on flights and reinforced cockpit doors.
Figures compiled by the International Civil Aviation Organization show seven “unlawful seizures” of planes in 2001, the year of the al-Qaeda attacks on the US. The highest number in any year since was five in 2009. The group recorded no airliner seizures in 2010 or last year.
Despite the drop, authorities are far from complacent and attempted attacks continue — the group showed acts including sabotage attempts rising from just two in 2005 to 14 in 2009 before dropping off sharply to three last year.
Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, said the current security measures are a strong deterrent.
“People feel that the powers that be are very security conscious and are looking out for people,” he said.
Many existing security measures were introduced or strengthened in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda militants hijacked four commercial jets in the US.
Shortly after Dutch air traffic controllers lost contact with the pilots of Spanish carrier Vueling’s Airbus A320, two F16 fighter jets were scrambled and flashed over the pancake-flat landscape, setting off a sonic boom as they broke the sound barrier on their way to intercept the plane and make visual contact with its pilots to make sure nothing was wrong.
It appears that not just post-Sept. 11 security is at play. Analysts who have studied hijackings say the phenomenon was already on the decrease well before Sept. 11.
Harro Ranter, a Dutchman who compiles a list of hijackings from official sources and media reports, says many hijackings in the 1960s and early 1970s — the most prolific era for taking over aircraft — were by people trying to escape from or get to communist regimes.
“When the Soviet Union fell apart, that led to a decline in attempted hijackings,” he said.
However, Baum said terrorists are likely already plotting ways of beating current airline security and predicted they could even try surgically implanting explosives in the body of a suicide bomber to beat airport scanners.
He said airports should be using scanners capable of recording what was in passengers’ bodies, not just objects concealed in or under their clothes.
“[Existing] body scanners are a major improvement on metal detection, but realistically we’re buying into the wrong type of scanners,” he said.