Thursday, December 31, 2009
El Al and airport security
"Why can't TSA be more like El Al?" you sometimes hear when people grouse about American airport security. "El Al hasn't had a terrorist incident on one of its planes for many decades."
True. El Al's security measures indeed are highly effective. Instead of examining shoes and toothpaste tubes, El Al agents -- all trained psychologists -- quietly interview each passenger at length, watching for telltale signs that all might not be well.
Years ago, when I flew El Al from JFK to Tel Aviv on a travel writers' junket, a pretty young Israeli sat me down in a cubicle and politely asked me about my business in Israel, where I was staying, with whom I was traveling, and so on. She kept her eyes on mine during the entire interview -- "interrogation" is too harsh a word for the deceptively soft questions she asked -- and presumably watched my body language for unconscious but revealing twitches of guilt and evasiveness.
It was clear that she knew exactly who I was and why I was traveling to Israel -- I was a guest of both El Al and the Israeli tourism authority and presumably had passed a background check -- but she pressed on anyway, until she was satisfied that I posed no danger.
Afterward, she thanked me for my patience and waved me and my luggage through the metal detector and X-ray machine and into the passenger lounge. I looked about. Three or four men and women in unobtrusive civilian clothes strolled quietly among the passengers, apparently observing their behavior. It was hard to miss them; they had the watchful look of cops.
Wouldn't it be nice if American air security could do the same?
But TSA agents could never follow this scheme. They barely have a high school education, let alone a degree in psychology. They obey a rigid operations manual; they do not make considered decisions.
We also have to remember that El Al is a minor national airline and is government-supported. It can afford the relatively small number of highly trained security personnel it needs.
And so for us, El Al's policy is way too labor-intensive as well as too brain-demanding.