In the wake of the failed Xmas bombing on Northwest Airlines flight 253 to Detroit, some people wonder why El Al (Israel’s national airline) is succeeding where the TSA is making a pig’s breakfast of things. (Instapundit has never hidden his opinion that the TSA is a make-work program that may incidentally provide some security benefits, rather than the other way around.)
As a frequent long-haul business traveler, I obviously have a vested interest in airlines getting their act together on this one. Here are some impromptu observations on El Al security (in part based on my own experiences):
- El Al openly and unapologetically profiles. (Passengers reportedly get “presorted” in risk level categories: Israeli Jews the lowest, non-Israeli Arab Muslims the highest.) [BTW, as by clockwork, the usual suspects are calling on the TSA not to adopt profiling in the wake of the latest incident. (H/t: C2) This perhaps for the same reason that certain organization keep trying to pressure Israel into dismantling the security fence: because something that actually works cannot be suffered to live ;-)]
- Every passenger gets interrogated in person: the depth depends on the assigned risk level, but also on one’s response and body language during interrogation (cfr.: microexpression). If interrogation switches from routine to in-depth, repeating questions several times (in different wordings) in order to trip up the person is common, as is cross-checking versions of different family members traveling together.
- An Israeli citizen will be expected to produce his/her national ID card (compulsory to carry at all times, like in many European countries) as well as his/her passport. Commonly, the security guy will pull out the slip that lists your place of residence and family members and ask some questions about those — including some details only somebody actually living in that town would be likely to know.
- The people doing screening are generally smart and well motivated. El Al security staff abroad, in particular, are quite unlike your typical TSA drone — for them it’s generally the first rung on a career ladder in the country’s security establishment. This aside from the fact that terrorism has been a living reality in Israel for all of its existence. (What did Samuel Johnson say again: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”)
- The security section in the Wikipedia article on El Al, which is fairly objective, has additional details on in-flight security. Not only does El Al keep armed plainclothes security staff on all its flights, but the in-flight staff is trained in both weapon use and hand-to-hand combat, and almost all El Al pilots are former air force flyers capable of handling their planes under… “unusual” circumstances.
Overall, the three things that set El Al security apart from everybody else’s are:
- reliance on human elements first and technology second, and — analogously — on common sense first and procedures second
- smart and motivated staff
- disregard for political correctness
A few older articles that may be of interest for further reading:
- Interview with former El Al security chief
- This pilot clearly has a liberal political perspective, but has some interesting observations, specifically on issues in “scaling up” the El Al security approach to the vast US air transit network. I definitely take issue with his calling Israel a “full-blown security state” though — many things Americans perceive as “intrusive” (like compulsory national ID cards, a centralized population registry,…) are common currency in continental Europe, not just Israel. [And, perversely, I feel a lot freer to speak my mind in Israel than on a US college campus ;-) ]
- Jeff Jacoby in 2006 on airline security
- This piece on a recent kerfuffle involving the El Al route to Johannesburg has some interesting details buried in it. Notably, that El Al’s security staff abroad carry diplomatic passports, with their concomitant diplomatic immunity.
UPDATE: The businessman blogging at Coyote Blog explains why he cut his airline travel by 75%, even as his business kept expanding. “Security Theater” indeed. Or perhaps “Keeping Up Appearances“, starring Janet Napolitano as Hyacinth Bucket.