Imagine the airport with no security. No metal detectors. No TSA guards. No luggage searches. Boarding an airliner with a firearm could be as easy as putting a pistol in your pocket and taking your seat.
That's the way it was in the United States in the early 1970s when an epidemic of airline "skyjackings" dominated the news. Hijackers' motives ranged from political to financial. Their destinations spanned North America, Europe and Asia and quite often included the island nation of Cuba. The hijackings took place against a backdrop of dramatic social change and the Vietnam War.
Three decades before the 9/11 attacks, these airline bandits triggered a chain of events leading to the modern airline security we enjoy -- and suffer -- today.
Author Brendan Koerner details the most fascinating of these dangerous high-altitude confrontations in his new book, "The Skies Belong to Us."
Koerner offered CNN a quick preview.
CNN: How did the idea hit you?
Brendan Koerner: In October 2009 I was reading the Metro Section of The New York Times and there was a little item about this man named Louis Armando Pena Soltren who'd been a Puerto Rican nationalist, and he lived in the Bronx in the '60s. And he and two of his comrades in 1968 hijacked a plane from New York to Cuba.
He actually spent the next 41 years living in Havana. And then suddenly in 2009 he decided to come back to the U.S. voluntarily. And so this piece was about the fact that he had been arrested the second he stepped off the plane at JFK.
I was kind of intrigued by that for a couple of reasons. One is, I've always been fascinated by stories about fugitives in exile. Certainly that's the substance of my first book ("Now the Hell will Start"). It's about fugitives from justice.
And two, I was just kind of intrigued by the fact that he hijacked a plane and had been wanted for four decades.
I was always vaguely familiar with the fact that planes had once been hijacked to Cuba, but I really didn't know much about that era in aviation. It was a little bit before my time.
So I started looking into this time period. And I was just blown away by how common hijacking was in America at that time.
I was particularly intrigued by this one story. I was looking at names of people who had done this and it was pretty much all males, and pretty much people with pretty obvious political motives. And there was this one name that leapt out at me. And it was a young woman named Catherine Marie Kerkow, from a small town in Oregon, who had done this. And I really become interested in her case.
And that became something that took me down a four-year journey -- a four-year research and writing path.
CNN: How old are you? And do you remember hearing about any of these hijacking stories in the news when you were a child?
Koerner: I'm 37. The only hijacking story I really remember vividly from being a child was in the 1980s, there was a pretty famous TWA hijacking in the Middle East, I believe in Beirut. I was born after this hijacking epidemic, which pretty much ended in early 1973. So it definitely predates me.
CNN: If the Nixon administration hadn't clamped down and if 9/11 hadn't happened, do you think skyjackings would still be going on today?
Koerner: Ultimately the solution to it was a pretty prosaic one, in that after putting up with all these hijackings for so many years, they made a decision to finally compel all travelers to pass through metal detectors and have their carry-on luggage searched.
And pretty much immediately after instituting that regulation, skyjackings dwindled to almost zero. So it was a pretty simple fix, and one that had been resisted for a long time because they didn't want to inconvenience travelers. The airlines in particular were really terrified that their customers wouldn't fly anymore because they didn't want to be treated like criminal suspects just because they were flying.
So they resisted very public calls for them to do this for many, many years. Would this still be going on today? It's hard for me to fathom that we wouldn't have done something about this eventually. I think that they eventually put in those regulations when it became obvious that planes could be used as weapons of mass destruction.
There's an incident in November '72 which I discuss in the book, when a Southern Airways flight was hijacked and the hijackers threatened to crash it into a nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, unless they were given $10 million.
And that was really the straw that broke the camel's back. It became obvious that if that had happened there would have been a tremendous loss of life and destruction. So it wasn't just a matter of, "Well, let's give in to people and everyone will be safe." It became too risky at that point.
CNN: Your book describes the tipping point in the history of aviation travel where travelers have gone from being treated as welcome guests to -- for some -- feeling like they're being treated as potential criminals.
Koerner: That's exactly right. It's interesting that the fear of the airlines was that people would not fly anymore or they would lose a large percentage of their customer base. People would choose to drive instead of fly because they didn't want to put up with this intrusion.
But interestingly, when the dawn of the screening was covered in early 1973, pretty much universally people were in favor of it, because they recognized how dangerous the skyjacking epidemic had become.