Saturday, January 2, 2010

What Can Israel Teach the U.S. About Airport Security?

It's not what's in their shoes or underwear. It's what's in their minds.

For eight years, travelers in the United States getting ready to head to the airport have had to think hard about their footwear.

Knowing that we’ll be forced to remove our shoes to go through the X-ray machines, we make sure that they are an easily removed pair — and that socks have been recently washed to prevent embarrassment.

In warm weather, the ordeal can’t be prevented by a clever choice to wear open sandals that expose the feet, as the TSA employees are under strict orders to closely examine even the strappiest shoes.

But Israelis heading for Ben-Gurion Airport need not worry about donning even the most complicated pair of lace-up boots, as passengers are never asked to take off their shoes as part of the security process.

Airport security in Israel is not about what’s on your feet, or in your pockets, or — god forbid — in your underwear. It’s about what’s in your head.

While the Israeli security system is certainly not perfect, it is unlikely that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab could have successfully boarded a plane without being detained, questioned in-depth, and hopefully caught — even if his risk level hadn’t been so clearly documented.

The secret of Israeli airport security doesn’t just lie in super-sophisticated technology. Simply put, in Israel’s airport, there are simply far more opportunities to get caught. As Rafi Sela, an expert on security, outlined for the Toronto Star, the security system at Ben-Gurion Airport is multi-layered, comprised of the following elements:

– Roadside check: Drivers are stopped and asked who they are and where they came from. Even at that early stage, they are examined for behavioral giveaways that would mark them as suspicious.

– Armed guards at the entrance to the terminal and the entrance of the airport give you the visual once-over as you enter. They can pull you aside for a random check.

– Before you arrive at the main check-in counter, you stand in a security line where a young, clearly intelligent young man or woman examines your passport and ticket, looks straight into your eyes, and asks you about who you are, where you came from, where you are heading, who packed your luggage, and whether you are carrying any packages for anyone.

If you offer an ambiguous answer, or raise any red flags by your behavior, the grilling continues, and the questions can frankly become irritatingly personal. My ire was up in an airport stop pre-9/11, when, to check whether I was in fact an American Jew, I was asked questions about my Bat Mitzvah. Suspicious behavior results in closer examinations.

– Luggage is X-rayed before check-in. Suspicious items are put in blast-proof containers and moved away to a safe area. The airport doesn’t shut down over a suspicious object.

– Only then comes the walk through the X-ray machine (with your shoes on) and the check of your hand luggage. Yes, they are checking out your bags, but again, they are mainly checking you out. Nobody cares about your bottle of water, baby formula, moisturizer, nail scissors, or tweezers.

The journey through this process, with multiple stations at every stop, is usually fairly rapid for low-risk travelers, even at the height of holiday season.

So, as the Star points out, the Israeli way is both more efficient and more effective. So why not adopt it in the U.S.?

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