Hijackings of US aircraft have decreased sharply since a nationwide airport security check went into effect in early 1973. But the successful hijacking to Cuba Jan. 25 of a Delta L-1011, with 65 passengers and crew members aboard, indicates, as a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told this newspaper after the incident, "there are lapses" in the security system.
(The Delta passengers sneaked off the plane in Havana while the hijacker, an American ex-convict who says he is a Muslim, was in the cockpit demanding to go to Iran. The Delta fight crew either talked the man into surrendering or overpowered him. There are conflicting reports. The hijacker was in the hands of Cuban authorities at this writing.)
From 1968 through 1972, the year before the mandatory airport security system went into effect, there was an average of i7 hijackings a year. Since then the average has dropped to fice a year, according to th e FAA.
Under FAA contracts, several firms are designing equipment aimed at making airport security tighter. But some of these advances will not be ready for use for a long time, one FAA official says.
FAA investigators in Atlanta now face a more immediate issue: trying to find and plug the apparent "lapse" in the security system.
The hijacker apparently got a pistol through the security system at the Atlanta airport where he boarded the plane which was scheduled to fly to New York. (a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Miami says the hijacker "allegedly used a .45 automatic during the hijack.")
One theory is that the hijacker may have hidden the gun in the clothes of one of two infants with whom he and a woman were traveling (or possibly in a metal stroller). Under FAA regulations, even babies must be passed through the metal detectors that other passengers must use.
But Eugene Stewart, Delta vice-president for corporate security, said in a telephone interview: "I can see where two adults coming up with two babes in arms . . . there could have been some shuffling around, and one baby was handed to the other [adult]" without passing through the detector.
It might have been a human concern on the part of security personnel to help the parents, and there is often a crowd anxious to board the cheaper night flights, the kind hijacked, Mr. Stewart said.
Under FAA regulations, the airlines provide security equipment and hire and train personnel to operate it. But "humans get tired, get distracted, says an FAA spokesman, Fred Farrar. So research is continuously on the way to design equipment to reduce human error, he says.
One of the more promising devices being tested is a computer-controlled sensor that uses x-rays to detect explosives. A light flashes upon detection, reducing some of the human judgment on items passing through the carry-on luggage screening device.
Testing airport security equipment "has not been a priority item with us because the number of hijackings has decreased," says Dennis Feldman, assistant public affairs officer for the FAA.
FAA and Delta officials agree the nation's current airport security system is not perfect. But they also agree the "track records" have been very good.