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.


  1. Brains vs Brawn. We let the Captain who is strapped in to his seat, the cockpit door locked, carry a 357 magnum? "Bill" D

  2. Another thing El Al does is to pass all luggage through a decompression chamber that simulates pressure at altitude, to make sure no bombs with altitude triggers get aboard. It is reputedly the only airline in the world that does this.

  3. For much more detail, check out Ruth Ozeki's blog post about this:


  4. It should be pointed out that El Al does a lot of racial profiling, especially of Arabs and other Muslims, and there has been a lot of controversy about this.

  5. Avoid wearing clothing, jewelry, and accessories that contain metal. Metal items may set off the alarm on the metal detector.