Airline security: why is El Al different from all others?

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:

  1. reliance on human elements first and technology second, and — analogously — on common sense first and procedures second
  2. smart and motivated staff
  3. 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.

9 thoughts on “Airline security: why is El Al different from all others?

  1. When was the last time an El Al flight was hijacked, had a bomb threat or had any safety issues?



    So if it works so well, and always has.. it should be the model for all to follow. Especially the racial profiling.

  2. I flew El Al to Israel in 1978 at the height of the airplane hijackings. Security meant being interviewed in a curtained booth. The young German guy in front of me spent about 15 minutes being questioned. I thought, “Oh my gosh. I am like him, I’m bearded and traveling with a backpack. Will he do the same to me?” When it came my turn, I walked in and was asked to show my passport. He took one look to confirm that the picture was of me and then said, “Have a nice stay in Israel, Mr. Perry.”

    I obviously didn’t fit the terrorist profile.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Dachau Liberated

  3. Great post.

    But diplomatic passports mean nothing unless you are accepted as the diplomat at in the country you are entering or are an official guest of government.

    That means you are on a list At the protocol division of the Ministry of foreign affairs as embassy staff or you have been officially invited by the host government And specifically your diplomatic status is recognised.. Normally that requires ministerial approval.

    Giving someone a diplomatic passport means nothing unless the other country has accepted you and your credentials.


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