Ask the pilot

Should America emulate Israel's crack air security? Only if we want to turn ourselves into a full-blown police state.


Patrick Smith
June 9, 2006 4:00PM (UTC)

What's left to say about airport security that hasn't been thrashed, mashed and rehashed in this column 10 times over? More than it may seem, perhaps. In an age when matters of safety have, to great chagrin, become the heart and soul of the American consciousness, few topics are more bottomlessly exasperating and, by the same token, worthy of careful and repeated analysis. Whether picking apart the follies of our beleaguered Transportation Safety Administration, or taking on the reactionary fear-mongering of Annie Jacobsen, it's a dirty job that requires, if nothing else, tenacity.

Isn't that a splendid disclaimer? It popped to mind as I sat aboard a Jordanian bus, preparing to cross the border from Jordan into Israel at the Allenby Bridge, east of Jerusalem. At such a peculiar ground zero of geopolitical tension, the subject felt ripe for another tour.

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Between Galilee and the Dead Sea, the border between Jordan and Israel is formed by what's left of the ancient Jordan River. In places, the snaking, heavily polluted waterway is 3 meters or less from bank to bank -- nearly thin enough to connect with a pair of outstretched arms. There's a frustrating irony, and maybe a certain poetry too, in the idea of so much unease being separated by little more than a reed-clogged creek. For an American tourist, traversing this narrow strip of demarcation can take two hours or more. If you're unlucky enough to be a Palestinian, it might be 12 hours. As a guard stamped my passport and waved me through, I saw throngs of Arabs corralled in a nearby waiting area. Soldiers rummaged through their belongings, swabbing for explosives. Ethnic profiling at its most unabashed.

The bridge crossing was an adventure, but it was the airport in Tel Aviv that I was most interested in seeing. Americans have a way of holding up the Israeli example of air security as the gold standard to which we are obliged to strive. Readers of this column certainly seem to think so. Our airports, letter writers consistently urge, need to be more like Israel's, and our airlines more like that country's impenetrable national carrier, El Al. To wit, not long after Sept. 11, Raphael "Rafi" Ron, retired security czar of Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International, was brought in to revamp procedures at Boston-Logan, departure point for both of the World Trade Center aircraft.

I'd been to Ben Gurion, which is named in honor of Israel's original prime minister, once before. My first-ever trip overseas, as a high school sophomore in 1982, brought me to Tel Aviv on an El Al 747 from New York. Memories are foggy, and in any case the airport has been completely rebuilt. Opened in 2004 at a cost of $1 billion, the central passenger complex, called Terminal 3, is the largest and most expensive aviation project in Israel's history. It is operated and managed by the Israel Airports Authority, a government administration that also runs land crossings like the one at Allenby Bridge. Terminal 3 is an impressive, four-story structure of glass and steel, attractively accented in desert tones. The spacious departure hall is somewhat reminiscent of Terminal One at New York's JFK.

Security? Yes, it's tight and it's everywhere, even before you step inside. Arriving by taxi, we were briefly detained at a roadway checkpoint well short of the terminal itself. Our driver, a Palestinian, was asked to show his identity card while an M-16-toting guard asked for passports. "Where are you coming from?"

"Jerusalem," the driver answered. This was half true. Indeed we'd set out from there, albeit with a stop along the way at Bethlehem, in the West Bank. Such detours, however innocuous, are best not divulged when hurrying to catch a flight at TLV.

Once you're in the building, a security agent has a look at your ticket, thumbs through your passport, and conducts a brief interview. The process isn't unlike the short, Lockerbie-induced Q-and-A debriefings one goes through at European airports, though for us, fresh from a neighboring Arab country, it entailed a mini-interrogation. Why we had chosen to visit Jordan? (To see Jerash, Petra, Wadi Rum and everything in between.) How long were we there? (Six days.) How did we get around? (Rented a car.) Were we asked to carry gifts or packages? (No, but I did have a souvenir Palestinian flag tucked inside a magazine.)

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All bags, carry-ons and otherwise, are next run through InVision machines prior to check-in. These igloo-shaped CT scanners probe for bombs and explosives. InVision units have become common in the United States too, but TLV has the process streamlined to a science. Any luggage flagged for extra scrutiny is routed, along with its owner, to a separate station for a hand inspection. There, the staff is able to pull up the resultant scan on a touch-screen monitor, pinpointing whatever offending item roused suspicion (such as a piece of ceramic pottery from the Jordanian city of Madaba).

After check-in and seat assignment, passengers head to the immigration line, where the formalities are about the same as in most other countries. Then, down a short corridor for a quick, straightforward trip through the metal detector, and one more X-ray for carry-ons.

Total time from curbside to boarding lounge, excluding several minutes in the check-in queue, was approximately 25 minutes. Less than half an hour for an explosives scan, open-bag hand search, documents check, security interview and X-ray inspection. That's a shorter time than it takes to pass through a single metal detector in many U.S. terminals.

And a note to the TSA: There is no foolish shoe removal in Israel. I don't know what recommendations old Rafi Ron passed along to his counterparts in America, but more than four years after Sept. 11, our own airport protocols, woefully preoccupied with footwear and hobby knives, remain embarrassingly disorganized and jury-rigged. Culled from the army, Tel Aviv's security staff is young, fit, polite and extremely attentive. How to say this without insulting the hard-working TSA employees out there, but on top of all else, Israel's airport guardians simply look like professionals.

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Quantitatively, Ben Gurion's security is obviously tighter and more apparent than security in the United States. At the same time, it is far more orderly, and it's administered with a clear sense of purpose and competence. In the end, it feels less obtrusive, while simultaneously more productive, than the rigmarole we've created at home. To underscore just how farcical our methods are, I was required to take off my boots and place them on the X-ray belt after landing in the United States, en route to an adjacent concourse for a connecting flight, while still within the secure zone.

And if there's one thing at Ben Gurion that has a more dignified presence than the security, it is -- and I can hardly believe I'm saying this -- the sense of peace and quiet. Even amid a busy departure push the terminal is pleasantly hushed. There are no infernal CNN monitors blaring at the gates and, best of all, no endless barrage of P.A. announcements cautioning travelers about unattended bags and suspicious packages.

A brief recording plays every 20 minutes or so, emphasizing the prohibition against firearms on the premises. If this seems an unnecessary reminder, you've never been to Israel, where soldiers and their weapons are everywhere. Possibly this is the only place on earth to see groups of teenage girls, giggling and chatting on their cellphones, with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.

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"It is totally forbidden to take firearms or any parts of any weapons on board the airplane." That from a brochure, Security Information for Passengers, available at kiosks throughout the terminal.

Otherwise, a certain level of vigilance on the part of travelers is assumed and understood. Not to suggest that the guards, for their part, aren't watching or paying attention. After I wandered away from my backpack for fewer than 20 seconds, an officer was there making sure it was mine, requesting that I keep closer proximity.

But it's not draconian strictness or bullying regulations that make Tel Aviv so impressive -- not on the surface, anyway. It's common sense and efficiency. The place isn't merely safeguarded; it's downright passenger friendly. So it would seem those letter writers are right. We could do worse than emulate our allies in the Middle East. Why can't we, or why don't we, have a system like theirs?

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Unfortunately, that's a bit like asking why America's streets can't be as clean as Singapore's. Mostly it's a case of scale. The United States has dozens of mega-terminals, and hundreds more of varying sizes; the nation's top 25 airports each process more than 20 million people a year. Tel Aviv is Israel's sole major airport, handling 9 million passengers annually -- about the same as Raleigh-Durham, N.C. The ability to focus on this single, consolidated portal makes the job comparatively simple. There are aspects worth borrowing, for sure, but it's naive to think Israeli protocols can, in whole, be fitted to a nation that is 50 times more populous, and immeasurably more diverse and decentralized.

The same applies when talking about El Al, the Israeli national airline. No carrier has taken more care to protect its fleet against sabotage, it's true. Among other measures, every El Al jet is outfitted with an anti-missile system. Crews are trained in hand-to-hand combat, and a minimum of six armed marshals ride aboard every El Al flight. But in addition to being one-third owned and funded by the state, El Al is a relatively tiny airline. It operates fewer than 40 aircraft, all hubbed from a single city, and transports just over 3 million passengers yearly. Compare that with American, United or Delta, just to name three, each with more than 500 planes. American Airlines carries roughly 1.7 million passengers every week.

To protect our airports and skies, our expenditures have increased multifold in the past several years. The TSA budget alone is now close to $6 billion. In many regards, return on the investment has been paltry. We have every right to be disappointed and frustrated, and to demand something better. What we shouldn't do, however, is fantasize about a system as button-down and foolproof as Israel's.

Don't get me wrong, it's certainly possible. That is, at the cost of turning our airports into fortresses, and our nation into a full-blown security state -- which Israel certainly is. That's something I hope never to see, though many would argue we're already well along that path -- the tipping point merely one more terrorist attack, one more explosion away.

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SOME TIDBITS

In 1972, when Ben Gurion International was still known as Lod Airport (after the city in which the field is physically located), a terrorist attack by the Japanese Red Army killed 26 people in the arrivals lounge.

The last successful hijacking of an El Al aircraft occurred in 1968.

In 1986, an Irish citizen named Anne Murphy was caught attempting to board an El Al flight in London with 3 pounds of plastic explosives concealed in her luggage. The stash had been planted by Murphy's boyfriend, Nezar Hindawi, allegedly with cooperation from the Syrian government, prompting Britain to suspend diplomatic relations with that country.

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In 1995, as part of Operation Solomon, an airlift of Ethiopian Jews, an El Al Boeing 747 set the all-time record for passengers aboard a commercial airliner, carrying 1,087 people from Addis Ababa.

An El Al 747 freighter slammed into an apartment complex near Amsterdam in 1992, killing at least 47 people (the actual total is disputed, as the building was home to many illegal immigrants). A corroded fuse pin caused the plane's No. 3 engine to detach after takeoff. The wayward power plant then collided with an adjacent engine, knocking it too from the airframe. The plane crashed while maneuvering for an emergency landing.

In Hebrew, El Al literally means "to on," or "to the highest," but is traditionally translated as "skyward."

Some of El Al's freighters travel in unmarked stealth mode.

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El Al's newest livery isn't half as handsome as the one it supersedes.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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