December 30, 2009, 6:21 pm
Aviation Security and the Israeli Model
By THE EDITORS
Jim Hollander/European Pressphoto Agency An Israeli security agent questioning a passenger at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv.
A Room for Debate forum on Monday discussed ways to deal with terrorist attacks on commercial airplanes. A number of readers suggested that the United States adopt Israel’s tough air safety system. Is that option desirable or even possible here? Excerpts from the reader comments follow.
Boarding a plane at Ben Gurion airport, shoes aren’t removed (no stocking feet!), passengers aren’t body scanned, and there are no pat downs. There are, however, plenty of questions asked by intelligent security officers who have got their eyes firmly on you, know exactly what to look for, and have no qualms about detaining any individual or group who arouse their suspicions. Once you pass muster, your luggage is X-rayed, you walk through a metal detector and you’re in. That’s that.
Interestingly, the last time I traveled from Ben Gurion, just a few months ago, there was a large Muslim family in front of me, the women in head scarves. Security asked questions tailored to the group, and when the travelers answered appropriately, they got right through. All was fine.
Stress Security, Not Convenience
The safest airline in the world, it is widely agreed, is El Al, Israel’s national carrier. The safest airport is Ben Gurion International, in Tel Aviv. No El Al plane has been attacked by terrorists in more than three decades, and no flight leaving Ben Gurion has ever been hijacked. What are the Israelis doing that we aren’t?
The Israelis understand that it is the people who are threats, not the objects that they are carrying.
Airports in the United States and many other countries are built around convenience while in Israel it’s all about security. We get our boarding passes online and check our baggage at the curb.
At T.S.A. checkpoints, youths stare at screens, doing the best they can to not look at nor talk to us.
Contrast this with an Israeli airport where you stay with your bags until your security check is complete, and airline and highly trained security personnel talk to you and watch you constantly. You’re not allowed to approach the ticket counter until you are cleared by the security system, while in the United States, security is an apparent afterthought.
Israeli airport security, much of it invisible to the untrained eye, begins before passengers even enter the terminal. Officials are constantly monitoring passengers’ behavior, alert to clues that may hint at danger.
Profilers make a point of interviewing travelers, sometimes at length, and oftentimes asking questions that don’t seem to make any sense at all — and that’s the idea. The point of the long questioning is to find inconsistencies in a terrorist’s cover story, or to agitate him into a panic. If you are lying or distracted by something, the profilers will soon figure that out, and you will be marked as a possible threat and action will be taken.
While the T.S.A. is busy confiscating cosmetics, small pocket knives and water bottles, the Israelis understand that it is the people who are threats, not the objects that they are carrying. To a much greater degree than in the United States, security at El Al depends on intelligence and intuition rather then performing rote actions.
In my opinion, the T.S.A. should be hiring ex-Mossad operatives as advisers and college-educated screeners with degrees in security or psychology. Is there a 100 percent guarantee of safety? No there is not. But in three decades, not one El Al plane has been attacked from within, and those are pretty good odds.
A Problem of Scale
Many commenters have suggested the security practices of El Al airlines be used in the U.S. Having never flown El Al (or visited Israel for that matter), I researched those practices. My main sources were the airline’s own Web site and its Wikipedia entry. Their practices are thorough and impressive. Some measures apply to their fleet. Others to checked-baggage screening, including a compression test designed to find explosives. With passengers, the main difference seems to be an individual interview with each passenger. Its reputation as the world’s safest airline is well-deserved.
Ben Gurion serves about as many passengers as my Sacramento airport does.
On the other hand, no matter how safe or how wonderful the flying experience on El Al, it is TINY airline by U.S. standards, with only 38 aircraft, 46 destinations, and fewer than two million passengers in 2008. As near as I can tell, Cairo is their only destination in a majority Muslim country. Delta, before the Northwest merger is included, reported 449 aircraft and 375 destinations.
Ben Gurion Airport is Israel’s primary (not only) international gateway. In 2008, Ben Gurion served 11.1 million international passengers and 470,000 domestic passengers, roughly comparable to the 10 million total served at Sacramento, the airport I use most often. Amsterdam served 47.4 million total, and Detroit served 35.1 million total in 2008.
By American standards, in terms of passengers served, Ben Gurion is a busy regional airport. And let’s face it, domestic air travel within Israel is quite small because it is a small country. One can get from one place to another without flying. Please, folks, small is not the same as unimportant.
On the other hand, as near as I can tell, 145 airlines serve 112 (more or less) destinations from Ben Gurion. Amman, Cairo, and Istanbul are the only destinations in majority Muslim countries, as near as I could tell. I had to look up many of the destinations, especially those in Central Asia — a good geography lesson.
The Israeli government has security measures that apply to all passengers at Ben Gurion. El Al supplements those practices. Other airlines serving Ben Gurion may apply El Al’s standards to those flights. I’m not going to do that research.
The Ben Gurion Web site gives a very brief description of security practices. It states that sharp tools or utensils, toys designed as realistic weapons, personal weapons or tear gas, and gas balloons are not allowed. If there are other prohibitions, they were not listed.
The most interesting difference was not that Ben Gurion passengers do not have to take off their shoes. Rather, persons found with prohibited objects will not be allowed to board their flight. The object is not just confiscated and tossed into a bin. The person is not allowed to fly. …
Simply as a matter of scale, I cannot imagine implementing an individual interview for every passenger passing through U.S. airports. I can imagine an individual interview for every international passenger coming to the U.S., but it would have to be implemented by the U.S. government at the departure airport, because I doubt the airlines would incur the cost, either of additional, specialized staff or customer umbrage at being asked “those” questions.
Maybe it becomes the last part of the visa review process — a Customs and Border Protection officer at the check-in gate conducting interviews of every passenger. An interview by C.B.P. is conducted after the plane lands, but that’s too late to stop someone from boarding who should be excluded. We may have to move our border from the destination airport to the gate check-in at the originating airport. Bet that would require some diplomatic work.
Israel’s racial profiling of Arabs has NOT stopped terrorism — in fact, it has encouraged it, and won popular support for the terrorists from wide sectors of the Arab community (including Arab Christians) who have suffered under the Israeli yoke.
And, Israel has a foreign country — America — paying its defense budget, so the Israelis can afford to spend a lot more on security than we can — because we are paying our security expenses as well as theirs.
Perhaps if we cut our aid for Israel from $5 billion a year to zero dollars a year, and banned American citizens from serving in the Israeli armed forces (as Americans are banned from serving in any other country’s military), we wouldn’t have such a problem with Muslim extremists!
In other words, if we didn’t antagonize the Muslims, we wouldn’t have a problem with Islamist terrorists.