New York - What Israel Can Teach the World About Airport Security
New York - Over the years, I’ve spent many hours, more than I care to count, in airports around the world.
From the perspective of security, one is in a class by itself: Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport. In the wake of the thwarted terrorist attempt on Northwest Flight 253, it’s time to revisit the Israeli model, as other countries ask what more can be done to prevent such near-catastrophes.
What are the Israeli ingredients? I don’t pretend to know them all, many of which are understandably hidden from view. But some are quite obvious and rather distinguishable from the norm at too many other airports.
In Israel, security comes first. It’s never an afterthought. It’s not outsourced to the semi-competent. It’s not about show-and-tell. Rather, it’s front-line work that’s in the hands of professionals and is well-coordinated and no-nonsense.
Israel creates a set of security layers, or circles, around airports - and, by extension, airplanes.
By the time a traveler boards the plane, there have been any number of potential interception points, starting with the toll-booth-like security entrance for all vehicles entering the airport grounds. Every car is stopped, while the guards make visual examinations and follow their training and instinct. Behind them stand intense-looking young men with sub-machine guns at the ready.
When entering the terminal buildings, again, more non-uniformed guards and more visual screening.
Then there’s the first actual security line in advance of flight check-in. An official approaches each passenger on line and patiently poses questions, which aren’t simply perfunctory, as they are, say, here in New York. They can be rather extensive and by no means predictable, usually accompanied by a review of tickets and passports - before the formal passport control, which only comes after check-in - to corroborate statements about itineraries and examine travel patterns.
When it comes to the actual security lines after check-in—the ones we’re familiar with—the contrast with, for instance, the U.S. can be striking. Everyone is quiet. There is no appearance of hyper-activity (the “more-is-less” phenomenon), as too often is the case at American airports. Interestingly, no one in Israel has ever asked me to take off my shoes or remove liquids from my hand luggage, suggesting how sensitive the available technology can be.
Apropos, in a similar vein, after 9/11, when, on American flights, we were being handed plastic cutlery, flights from Israel continued to use stainless steel. Israel was less concerned with the symbols of apparent security - the “Mickey-Mouse stuff,” as someone called it - and more focused on what constituted its real elements.
And even after successfully passing the security line, there’s more to come, right up to the plane’s interior, at least if it’s El Al, where air marshals are deployed on every flight.
In fact, speaking of marshals, in 2001, Richard Reid, who was later to become the notorious shoe bomber, flew on El Al. According to a CBS news report, while the Israelis didn’t have enough on him at the time to keep him off the plane, they were suspicious. They examined everything before he boarded and then, for good measure, placed a marshal in the adjoining seat. If he was on a scouting mission, he got the point and looked elsewhere.
To those who have never visited Israel, this may all sound as if it requires a full day, if not a week, before the actual flight. Not true. For the average passenger, the whole process moves quickly and with a minimum of personal inconvenience.
Of course, for travelers who have multiple visas from Yemen or Pakistan in their passports, look fidgety or distracted, become unnerved after the second question, try to buy a one-way ticket at the last minute with cash, show up with no luggage for an intercontinental journey, are wearing a heavy coat in summer, or display “attitude,” it’s likely to be a rather different story.
David Harris is Executive Director of the AJC
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