The hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 649 was an act of terrorism committed by a Palestinian group that took place between 22 and 23 February 1972. Eventually, all hostages on board the seized Boeing 747-200 were released when the West German government paid a ransom of US$5 million.
Flight 649 was a scheduled Lufthansa service on the Tokyo-Hong Kong-Bangkok-Delhi-Athens-Frankfurt route, which was operated once a week, leaving Tokyo-Haneda Airport on Monday afternoons and arriving at Frankfurt Airport the next morning. On Tuesday, 22 February 1972, the Boeing 747-200 serving the flight (registered D-ABYD) was hijacked by five men who were armed with guns and explosives. The initial assault happened at around 1:00 a.m., half an hour after the aircraft with 172 other passengers and 15 crew members had departed Delhi-Palam Airport.
It was later determined that the perpetrators, who identified themselves as Organisation for Resisting Zionist Persecution were commandeered by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and had boarded the flight at different airports, one at Hong Kong-Kai Tak, two at Bangkok-Don Muang, and two at Delhi-Palam.
Initially, the pilot was ordered to land the 747 at an unprepared airstrip in the Arabian Desert. Once the hijackers learned that the Lufthansa crew considered such a maneuvre to be too dangerous, they agreed on heading to Aden International Airport instead, in what was then South Yemen. Once having landed there, all women and children among the passengers were released, as well as one female flight attendant.
A few hours after the hijacking had commenced, a note was received at the Lufthansa headquarters in Cologne: the aircraft would be blown up by 9:00 a.m. on the following day if a ransom of US$5 million had not been paid by then. The handing-over was to take place near Beirut, according to the detailed instructions on the note. The West German government (at the time, Lufthansa was a state-owned company) decided to fully comply with the demands, without any bargaining.
On 23 February, once the hijackers had been informed that the ransom had indeed been paid, the male passengers (among them Joseph Kennedy, the then 19-year-old son of Robert F. Kennedy) were allowed to leave the hijacked aircraft and board the Boeing 707 Lufthansa had flown to Aden to pick them up with, but this aircraft also had to stay on the ground for another three hours. The remaining 14 Lufthansa crew members remained as hostages inside the jumbo jet, and were eventually released in the evening.
Though it was planned to keep the exact amount of money secret in order to not attract copycats, the sum was disclosed to the public on 25 February by Georg Leber, then Federal Minister for Transport. According to a spokesman of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), at that time this marked the biggest ransom ever paid for an aircraft.
Once all hostages of Flight 649 were set free, the hijackers surrendered to the South Yemeni authorities. On 27 February, they were released again without having been charged with any criminal offenses, likely in exchange for $1 million of the ransom. Thus, the perpetrators could never be reliably identified. West German news magazine Der Spiegel speculated that the remainder of the ransom had been used by the PFLP to fund the Japanese attackers responsible for the Lod Airport massacre, which took place on 30 May 1972.
The hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 649 marked the first such event in the history of the airline and the beginning of a series of Palestinian acts of violence involving West Germany during 1972, most notably the hostage crisis during the Munich Summer Olympics and the subsequent hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 615. Israel claimed that by complying with the demands of the attackers in all of those events, the West German government had "surrendered to terrorism". This accusation, combined with allegations of appeasement efforts towards the Arab–Israeli conflict, were debunked in 1977 when Lufthansa Flight 181 (the Landshut) was stormed by special forces of GSG 9, rather than negotiating with the Palestinian hijackers.