Longstanding Policy to Deal With Air Piracy : TWA Crisis Centers Set Up in N.Y.

Times Staff Writer

Minutes after Flight 847 was hijacked Friday en route from Athens to Rome, Trans World Airlines put into effect its longstanding corporate plan for dealing with air piracy.

Previously installed hot lines to the State Department and other federal agencies were activated, special hostage family desks were set up at reservations offices to answer queries and relay information and airline officials were sent to Paris and Algiers.

The airline decided to fly passengers who were released from the captured Boeing 727 jet to Cyprus and Paris as quickly as possible. When flight attendants were freed, arrangements were made for the FBI to debrief them in a hotel at Kennedy International Airport.

Crisis Centers Set Up


Parts of five floors of the airline’s headquarters in Manhattan became crisis centers with tense meetings, some with federal representatives, amid cups of stale coffee and fast food. As the hostage drama continued round-the-clock for days, some top executives of the airline snatched moments of sleep beneath blankets on couches and chairs.

The fact that corporations, especially airlines, make detailed plans for dealing with crises is no secret. However, TWA’s experience since Friday has been highly unusual because of the extreme pressure on executives and staff generated by the sustained and complex problems of the Flight 847 hijacking.

An open phone line from TWA’s headquarters on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan to the State Department is being manned 24 hours a day. “It provides the ability to have one voice and not a lot of rumors going around,” said Sally McElwreath, the airline’s director of corporate communications.

Compiling Passenger List


Minutes after the plane was hijacked, one of the first problems TWA faced was compiling a complete passenger list so families could be notified.

The task was not easy. Often, some people who make reservations do not show up for flights. Occasionally, a traveler who checks in at a ticket counter and boards a plane may decide to leave the aircraft before it takes off. Many passengers buy tickets through travel agents, making their home addresses not readily available.

TWA’s hostage family desks served as clearing houses when worried families called in. Names given by the callers could be compared with names on the airline’s passenger lists. After the airline made a list public Saturday, TWA officials systematically kept in contact with worried relatives.

“If there is a significant development, we call them,” said McElwreath. “When the first group of hostages was released in Beirut, we called the families.”


In addition, corporate public relations representatives have answered thousands of phone calls from newspapers and television and radio stations around the world. Some of the requests for information have been in foreign languages requiring translation. A press center for some of the passengers was set up in a Paris hotel and arrangements were made at a hotel near Kennedy airport for the flight attendants to hold a news conference.

As the airliner shuttled back and forth between Beirut and Algiers, TWA shifted personnel in Europe and the Middle East. Airline executives traveled to Paris to take care of passengers who were freed and who traveled to France from Cyprus and Algiers.

A corporate vice president flew from London to Algiers, where he could view the captured plane on the ground. He relayed information from the Algiers airport to corporate headquarters here.

As some of the passengers were released, they were questioned by U.S. officials seeking information about the takeover and the hijackers’ methods of operation. Federal officials also consulted with TWA about the aircraft.


Security was increased at TWA’s headquarters in New York. It was so tight that even C.E. Meyer Jr., the airline’s president, was challenged when he arrived at the office in sports clothes instead of his customary suit.

The airline stopped all advertising after the hijacking became known but otherwise maintained normal operations.