September 20, 2001
New Airline Safety Takes a Cue from El Al
El Al, Israel's national carrier, is proud of its reputation as the world's safest airline, but it prefers others to do the boasting for it. "One of the ways we maintain the security of our passengers," a spokesman said in the wake of the Twin Towers bombing, "is not to talk about how we maintain the security of our passengers."
Frequent fliers are less reticent. At Ben-Gurion airport, they say, they are asked to report two or even three hours before takeoff. A trained team, most of them students working their way through college, first check passengers and baggage. They have served in the army; they know what to look for. They give "high-risk" groups, like women traveling alone, or Arab men, a hard time.
It may not be fair, but their instructors think it's worth it. At Heathrow a few years ago, checkers stopped a pregnant Irish woman whose Arab boyfriend had given her a booby-trapped cassette recorder set to explode at altitude. If the plane had crashed, she would have gone down with it.
At the check-in counter, ground staff scrutinize the passport and the ticket. They won't accept a ticket without a sticker from the security checkers. Once through passport control, where your name is bounced through a computer, you and your hand luggage go through rigorous screening. The scanners are top of the market, checking for both metal and explosives.
Unseen by the passengers, suitcases are often put through a pressure chamber. If it's going to blow up, better on the ground than in the air. Bags are checked against the passenger list. If anyone doesn't board the plane, his or her luggage is removed before takeoff, however long the delay and discomfort.
In foreign airports, all baggage handlers loading El Al flights are security-checked by Israel. Passing through an African airport recently, a friend of mine spotted the baggage handlers being hand-searched with metal detectors.
On board, El Al airliners have the kind of protection that would have made last week's hijackings extremely difficult, if not impossible. Steel doors are barred and bolted to stop unauthorized people penetrating the flight deck. If the captain doesn't know you, you won't get in. There are reinforced steel floors separating the passenger cabin from the baggage hold. An exploding suitcase, like the one that killed 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, would probably be contained.
Every El Al flight has at least one highly trained sky marshal, equipped to neutralize hijackers. Jumbo jets have at least two. According to Aviation Week, some of the fleet were fitted with electronic countermeasures after a couple of German revolutionaries fired surface-to-air missiles at an El Al plane.
Beyond that, the slightest threat detected by Israel's far-flung security services is instantly passed on to the airline. At the airports, agents discreetly monitor arrivals and departures. "There are," as one informed traveler put it, "many eyes."