February 8, 2004, Updated September 13, 2012

Rafi Sela doesn’t believe that a safe trip means a more expensive trip. And he is on a mission to make airline travel in the U.S. more secure, relaxed and leisurely – and less expensive.

Sound impossible? Don’t put it past the Israeli Army veteran with decades of experience handling security-related issues in Israel and the U.S. According to Sela, the elements of security, comfort and cost are interrelated. This is a concept that major American airports miss, he says.

Sitting in a Jerusalem café, the striking, 58-year-old resident of Kfar Vradim in the north, points to an example close to home.

“The Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel is arguably the airport with the highest level of threat in the world and, at the same time, one of the safest in the world. Remarkably, it accomplishes this while allowing retail operations to rank sixth in the world in terms of retail revenue per passenger,” Sela tells ISRAEL21c.

His company, AR Challenges, includes some of Israel’s heavyweight security experts including a former Managing Director of the Israeli Airport Authority and Chief of Operations of the Israeli Security Agency, and a former Major General in the Israeli Police and Commander of the Jerusalem Region.

“Our personal involvement at a senior level at Ben Gurion allows us to offer a unique expertise that can be brought to bear similar benefits to American airports,” says Sela.

The natural question, though, is why do American airports need Sela and team’s advice. Aren’t American airports safe? Sela’s pleasant demeanor turns serious.

“Definitely not. There is no airport security per se in the U.S. What they have in the U.S. is aviation security – trying to prevent the bad guys from boarding a plane. But in American airports today, you can enter the terminals with any kind of weapon or device on you,” he says. “Following September 11, the airports panicked. Instead of working the way security operations are supposed to – from A to Z – they jumped in the middle somewhere around S.”

According to Sela, the Israeli method of security involves threat analysis. Before conducting a thorough analysis, one can’t assess what an airport’s vulnerabilities are, so the decisions made as a reaction to something that either doesn’t exist or is erroneous. They are actually “fighting the previous war” – not the next one.

“Until today, no official aviation body in the U.S. has done a serious and comprehensive threat analysis. Perhaps one reason is that if they do produce such a plan, they think that the cost of installing the required airport security system will be prohibitive,” says Sela.

Sela, who has worked with the U.S. Navy Seals, Swat teams and large U.S. organizations on security related matters – in addition to running his own security company in Washington D.C. before returning to Israel in 1995 – sees the solution with a holistic approach.

“Our plan says that the cost of security does not have to be an obstacle. If you do it right, then people can move more flexibly and in a relaxed manner toward the gate areas and the retail sections. You can enhance the retail operation and use the higher income to offset the cost of the more complex security.”

The problem with implementing his plan, says Sela, is a conceptual one.

“Most airports don’t see themselves as a business. They’re a budgeted service provider. They have fixed budget and a mandate to give service to airlines and passengers. If they can’t do that within their budget, it’s not problem for them – they simply raise the airport taxes, which the passenger ultimately pays for. As long as they can hike up feels for airlines and passengers, their budget is squared, but the airline industry and passengers suffer as a result.”

“We’re saying the airports need to look at it as a business. The expenses created by security needs should be offset by income. The whole mode of operation has to change. Now most airports have a security division and the retail division is part of Operations. There’s absolutely no contact or cross-referencing between the two departments. The first thing that has to happen is that the management structure has to change, and they have to start talking and working together. Then you’ll see some interesting, innovative ideas.”

One example Sela offers is the issue of retail placement. Most retail outlets in American airports – including new ones – are situated before the major security checks. Most passengers, fearing long lines and wanting to be on time, go through the security checks earlier leaving little time for shopping, thus cutting into potential revenue for the retailer and the airport.

Sela’s presented outlines of his AR Challenges airport reform plan to the AAAE (American Associaton of Airport Executives) at two of their conferences. He’s also met with officials at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the aviation department at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.

His presentation offers the following benefits and considerations:

** Thorough identification and ranking of specific global security threats

** Alternate ways to deal with current and potential threats

** Provision of real time world-wide counter terrorism targeted information

** Security Circles for ‘total’ airport security

** Maximize security and streamline passenger flow

** Minimize wait time

** Maximize commercial retail operations

** Provide higher security levels without operation disruption.

AR Challenges also deals with other issues like city, county and state emergency preparedness and response management, and their personnel have assisted in the training of New York Police Department following September 11 and has provided consulting services to other agencies. Sela says that they are also active in promoting the The S.A.F.E. consulting system (SECURITY+ ARCHITECTURE + FORE PLANNING + ENGINEERING) which provides both regulation, design criteria and products to protect new and old facilities against terrorist acts. The S.A.F.E. rules have been adopted by the Israeli Army Core of Engineers and represent the highest standard in protection against terrorist acts.

Sela realizes that it will take time to convince American airlines to change their long-held system of operation and adopt his plan for an integrated security/retail unit, but he is unwavering in his belief that it will work.

“It’s only a matter of time until airports realize that they’ll have to deal with this issue. And then the winner will be the airlines, and most importantly, the passengers.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director