JERUSALEM – “Has this luggage ever been used by someone else?” asked the El Al security official, a woman with a soft smile and long ponytail at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris before my departure to Tel Aviv last weekend. She eyed my weathered black bag, sitting on the floor next to a cubicle used for body searches and interrogations.
“My husband sometimes uses the suitcase,” I said. “Where has he flown?” she pressed. “Once to the Persian Gulf, I think,” I replied. That might have set off alarm bells in her mind, but the ‘selector,’ as screeners for Israel’s national airline are known, had meanwhile found a bigger problem.
Examining each stamp in my passport, she froze at a page with Arabic lettering. “Where’s this for?” she asked. “Syria,” I said – one of Israel’s bitterest enemies. I hurriedly explained: “I’m a journalist. I went there for the president’s funeral.” She summoned a muscular male colleague. “You traveling alone?” he asked. I replied I was. “But I saw you talking to someone in line,” he said. “Who is he?” Indeed, to pass the time, I had exchanged a few words with a passenger standing behind me in the long security line about five minutes before. I barely remembered the exchange. But like everything else when flying El Al, my idle chatter had not gone unnoticed. So it goes when traveling with the world’s most security- conscious airline.
For Americans considering an end to free and easy flying in the USA, El Al provides a glimpse of what might lie ahead after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Having lived for decades with bombs and suicide attacks, Israel designed the industry’s most impenetrable flight security more than 20 years ago. Officials say it is a stunning success. Despite several wars and endless conflict at home, El Al’s sole hijacking was in 1968, before the system began.
Other catastrophes have been averted since. One bomb was found in 1979 in Zurich in the bag of a German passenger who looked nervous: He had thought he had been hired to smuggle diamonds. Another bomb was discovered a few years ago in the bag of a pregnant English passenger in London, placed there by her Palestinian lover, whose identity security officials had checked beforehand.
The recent suicide hijackings could never have occurred on El Al, officials say. “Those men’s names would be on our list,” says Shlomo Dror, a Defense Ministry spokesman who helped design El Al’s system. Staff also easily would have noticed that the hijackers traveling first class did not look wealthy enough to pay the fare, he said.
For years, the airline industry has lauded El Al’s security. Yet until now, no American company has considered copying the elaborate system, which cost El Al about $90 million last year. In 1987, Dror drafted a lengthy security plan for Pan Am Airlines, suggesting profiling passengers, opening bags and hiring professional security staff. The company rejected it as costly and intrusive. One year later, a bomb on a Pan Am flight to New York exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.
“American security has been sleeping well for years,” says Beni Tal, head of a security-consulting firm in Tel Aviv, who has worked on government security. “Now they have woken up forever.”
Ironically, after a year of heavy losses, El Al’s bookings have soared since Sept. 11, with many passengers too fearful to fly other airlines. In stark contrast to other airlines, El Al shelved its plans to lay off 500 people and withdraw some of its Boeing 747-200 aircraft.
Still, it is not clear that El Al’s security can be duplicated. El Al’s flight load – about 40 flights a day to about 51 destinations – is minuscule compared with any major American airline. The largest U.S. carrier, American Airlines, by comparison, had about 2,400 daily flights before Sept. 11. And until now, Americans would have resisted the lengthy time involved in the screening process, which can even result in flight delays until the questioning is complete.
Despite their current anxieties, Americans also might balk at El Al-style ethnic profiling. Staff scrutinize the passengers’ names, dividing them into low-risk (Israeli or foreign Jews), medium-risk (non-Jewish foreigners) and extremely high-risk travelers (anyone with an Arabic name). These people automatically are taken into a room for body and baggage checks and lengthy interrogation. Single women also are considered high-risk, for fear they might be used by Palestinian lovers to carry bombs.
To sift out who is who, screeners usually begin by asking passengers whether they understand any Hebrew, which most Jews do. Officials argue that such blatant discrimination is necessary. “We don’t ask the same questions to everyone; there’s a surprise element so people can’t prepare their answers,” says El Al spokesman Nachman Klieman, adding that they don”t reveal many of their security secrets publicly.
In fact, El Al’s security kicks in long before the passenger will notice. Call an El Al office in any city to book a ticket, and your name will be checked against a computer list of terrorist suspects compiled by Interpol, the FBI, Shin Bet (Israel’s intelligence service) and others. My Paris travel agent insisted that the El Al flight on which I had reserved a seat did not exist. That is because El Al changes its schedule so frequently – to foil terrorist planning – that some agencies find it hard to keep up.
Once you board, up to five armed undercover agents will travel with you in strategic aisle seats, ready for attack. Furthermore, like many Israelis, cabin crews are former soldiers in the Israeli military who have received combat training. The cockpit door, of reinforced steel, is locked from the inside before passengers board and is opened only after everyone has disembarked at their destination. No matter what’s going on in the rest of the plane, it is never opened during flight. “Our pilots go to the bathroom,” says Klieman, without confirming whether bathrooms are inside the cockpit.
Perhaps surprisingly, El Al’s pilots are not armed. “I hear the American pilots want to have arms now, which I think is a bad idea,” Tal says. “They could go outside the cockpit and hurt people. You cannot fly a plane and carry arms.”
Even for regular El Al customers, the security process never feels comfortable, and the pre-flight probing is sure to make you feel somehow suspect. Watching closely for contradictions, the screener dissected my typically haphazard travel plan as though it were a lethal conspiracy.
“Why did you buy your ticket at the last minute?” the screener asked. “I changed my plans,” I said. “Why are you carrying wrapped boxes?” “I like to bring chocolates when people invite me over for dinner,” I said. “Who chose them in the store?” she asked. “I did,” I replied.
By El Al’s standards, my screening was light – only 10 minutes of questioning by two well-paid officials with full military training. It ended with one of them locking all the zippers on my suitcase with plastic ties. “Open these when you get to your hotel,” she instructed before sending me to the check-in desk.
El Al’s process is so time-consuming that passengers are required to arrive three hours before all flights. Passengers can be interrogated separately by three different screeners. And questioners ask passengers where they purchased their tickets to compare their answers with ticket codes representing the purchase location.
A lot happens behind the scenes, too. Once luggage moves from the check-in desk to the conveyer belt, it is put in a pressurized box that detonates any explosive before the bag is loaded on the plane, Dror says. No unaccompanied bags are allowed. Those bags remain behind. Bags transferring from another airline to El Al have to be checked through security again. Security officers watch over cleaning crews while they service the aircraft in foreign airports.
After the intense security, once on board I felt some relief, knowing that I could drop off to sleep without a care while plainclothes agents with firearms sat nearby, wide awake in the dark.