297. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Hijacking of Commercial Aircraft


  • Mr. Knut Hammarskjold, Director-General of the International Air Transport Association (IATA)
  • Mr. Julian Gazdik, General Counsel and Secretary of the Legal Committee, IATA
  • Mr. Frank E. Loy, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic Affairs
  • Mr. Thomas E. Williams, Aviation Liaison Division

Mr. Loy opened by saying that we have been concerned by the number of recent incidents of US and other aircraft hijacked to Cuba2 and particularly the hijacking of commercial aircraft, which threatens the safety of so many passengers. He pointed out there are two major aspects to this problem from our point of view: first, what can be done to discourage these incidents and second, how best to assure the return of aircraft and passengers once a hijacking occurs.

With regard to the latter question, Mr. Loy stressed that we have not had any problems in the past and, despite Castro’s recent speech indicating he might not be so cooperative in the future, we did not anticipate any difficulty. However, in the event that there should be some difficulty about the return of a plane and/or passengers which could not be resolved through other channels, we might want at that time to ask the Director-General if he could be of some assistance. Mr. Loy said again that we were not asking Mr. Hammarskjold to take any action at this time and we would not want anyone, particularly the Cubans, to get the impression we were anticipating difficulties. Mr. Hammarskjold said he understood and, without giving any definite commitment, indicated that his office might well be able to be of some assistance in such a situation if the need should arise. He observed that ICAO might also be able to help since the seizure of an aircraft engaged in scheduled international service would be contrary to the Chicago Convention. He mentioned also the Tokyo Convention on offenses committed on board aircraft but it was noted that the Convention [Page 522] is not yet in force and that it has not been ratified either by the US or Cuba.

As for possible means of discouraging hijacking, Mr. Loy summarized recent hijacking incidents and pointed out that in many cases the individuals involved had been mentally unbalanced and/or criminals fleeing from justice. He said we had been considering the possible deterrent effects if such individuals could be returned to the country where the hijacking was committed to stand trial. We realized, he said, there are both legal and political difficulties involved in extradition of such persons to or from Cuba. Moreover, while the US Government might be willing to explore the possibility of a reciprocal understanding on the return of commercial aircraft hijackers, where the lives and property of others are generally endangered, we have reason to believe that the Cubans would probably want to extend the issue to cover the return of all escapees from Cuba, including those that may escape by means of small boats, rafts, etc. Mr. Loy said return of such persons—who were often politically motivated—would generally be politically and morally unacceptable to the United States.

Mr. Loy pointed out, again, that we were not asking Mr. Hammarskjold to take any specific action at this time but, rather, were interested in obtaining his views as to what might be done in this regard. Mr. Hammarskjold said he had given careful thought to this matter. He could, he said, more readily visualize a role for IATA, as a representative of the carriers, on the question of return of aircraft and passengers than on the more political question of return of hijackers. He said any action by IATA in this regard would have to be very carefully considered but he did not preclude the possibility. Hammarskjold then said that his office might be willing to consider a low-key approach, through Cubana Airlines officials, indicating that the various carriers involved, i.e., Mexican, Venezuelan, and Colombian, as well as US, had expressed to him their concern over these incidents and asked his office to explore possible ways of discouraging future incidents. Mr. Hammarskjold implied he might be willing in this context to raise the question of the deterrent effect of returning hijackers of commercial aircraft.

As a representative of the commercial air carriers, the Director General would be concerned only with hijackings involving commercial aircraft. Mr. Hammarskjold pointed out that there will be a number of meetings where such an approach might be made, including an IATA Traffic Conference beginning September 18 in Cannes, an IATA Annual General Meeting in Munich at the end of October and an ICAO meeting in Buenos Aires at the end of September. He observed, however, that if any such approach were to be made by his office, it should be discussed in advance by the Governments of the countries most directly concerned.

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Mr. Hammarskjold asked whether we had considered the possibility of encouraging prosecution of aircraft hijackers by the government of the country to which the aircraft is diverted. Mr. Loy replied that this had been discussed and that, while the US Government probably would not object in many cases, we would not want to be in the position of urging the Cubans to prosecute US citizens. Moreover, there was a question whether the hijacking of a foreign-owned aircraft in another country would be a crime under Cuban law aside from the technical question of unauthorized entry, and whether, for political reasons, the Cubans would have any desire to prosecute such persons.

Mr. Gazdik raised the question of protective measures on aircraft such as requiring that the door to the flight deck be kept locked, arming of the crew, etc. and said IATA felt strongly that in an attempted hijacking situation particular care should be exercised to avoid violence that might endanger the safety of the aircraft. Mr. Loy said we concurred, and pointed out that when the life of a crew member or passenger is threatened, the pilot has little moral alternative but to comply with the hijacker’s demands, assuming there is sufficient fuel, etc. Mr. Gazdik said there had been suggestions that there should be a device on the aircraft to permit the flight crew to observe the passenger compartment from the flight deck. Mr. Loy said he felt this ought to be explored. In general, however, we were not sanguine about the general usefulness of such measures for the reasons already indicated.

Mr. Hammarskjold said he would continue to give some attention to these matters and would be in touch if he had any further suggestions. Mr. Loy thanked Mr. Hammarskjold for his time and his thoughts on these matters and added that we might want to get in touch with him again in this regard.3

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Records of the Department of State, Central Files, 1967–69, AV 12 US. Confidential. Drafted by Thomas Williams (E/OA) and cleared by William Beal (E/OA), John Meadows (E/OA), and Frank Loy (E/TT).
  2. See Document 296. A complete listing of all hijacked aircraft and details of the incidents are in Appendix A of Air Piracy in the Caribbean Area, cited in Document 296.
  3. In a May 1 letter to Charles Cary, Assistant Administrator for International Aviation Affairs at the FAA, Loy wrote: “I think the conversation with Hammarskjold was useful but I am not optimistic that any concrete solution to the problem of aircraft hijacking will result. To avoid arousing unwarranted expectations, as well as to protect IATA’s ‘non-political’ role, I believe that both the fact of my conversation with Hammarskjold and the contents thereof should be held as closely as possible.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Records of the Department of State, Central Files, 1967–69, AV 12 US) Loy also met with Walter Binaghi, President of the ICAO Council, on May 17. Binaghi “indicated his belief that ICAO’s ability to do anything would be much greater if either in general or in a specific case the matter appeared to be one involving a common criminal or involving a deranged person rather than one involving a politically-motivated person.” (Memorandum for the files by Loy, May 17; ibid.)