May 9, 2007

Head of the Jacksonville, Fla. Aviation Authority John Clark III, right, and Houston Airport System Director Richard Vacar stand in front of the security and passport control in Ben Gurion airport. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) With the heavy summer travel season looming, airport directors from US cities on Tuesday studied Israel’s airline passenger screening system, known as one of the world’s toughest and most effective.

The visitors noted the main difference between the two countries – Israeli security openly employs profiling, singling out passengers for stricter screening based on their appearance or ethnic group, a practice that is banned in the US.

“The definition of profiling for me has taken on a whole new meaning,” said John Clark III, head of the Jacksonville, Fla., Airport Authority. “It’s a continuous process of security versus a one-stop shop.”

The directors, representing airports from California to Florida, inspected at the security arrangements at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, where safety concerns affect the design of everything from windows to trash bins.
No successful hijacking has occurred on a plane leaving the airport, and no attack has taken place inside the terminal since the 1970s, although Israel and planes entering and leaving the country are prime targets for Islamic extremists.

“The Israelis are legendary for their security,” said Steven Grossman, head of aviation at the Oakland, Calif., International Airport.

Israeli experts say bolstering security efforts requires an extensive, and at times intrusive, interrogation process. Upon reaching the departure terminal, all passengers undergo individual questioning by security officers, who probe everything from their religious beliefs to travel companions inside the country.

Since profiling is employed, stricter security checks are not random. Instead, Israeli citizens are passed through with minimal questioning, unless they are Israeli Arabs, who are often subjected to humiliating body searches and interrogation. The security process has triggered many complaints, but in a nation where security is the top priority, little has been done to ease the checks.

Foreigners almost automatically receive closer scrutiny, and racial or other types of profiling can trigger extensive questioning and searching.

The Israelis believe this is one of the keys to their success, and the airport officials from the US could only speculate about how it would affect their work.

“Let’s face it. The whole issue of profiling – that is a difficult word to use in the United States,” Grossman said. “The level at which they do it is far beyond, I think, anything we practically can do,” for reasons of legal liability and higher number of passengers.

As in the United States, airport officials in Israel recommend all international passengers arrive three hours before departure. Due to heightened security, though, travelers often need every minute to make their flight.

About 9 million passengers come through Ben Gurion Airport each year, an airport spokeswoman said, the vast majority going to or from international destinations.
By comparison, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nev., handled 46 million passengers last year, most on short flights, said aviation director Randall Walker.

If passengers “have to show up at the airport three hours early to fly one hour, pretty soon they’re going to say, ‘Why don’t I just drive?'” Walker said.

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Jason Harris

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