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Flying Safe the Israeli Way

February 10, 2016
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(Photo by Kraevski Vitaly/shutterstock.com)

Every air traveler has a story of suffering the indignation of security searches, interrogations, long delays, unpacking and repacking suitcases while departure time looms, etc, etc, etc. Many are of the opinion that airlines are taking this security issue just a step or two too far. After all, who really wants to stand in that scanner that allows some unseen screener to see us…well… au natural?

Aug 10, 2005

Ben Gurion Airport – Tel Aviv (Photo by Cccc3333/wikipedia.org)

Perhaps the question we should be asking is not are they doing too much, but rather are they actually doing enough? Although security officials are working hard to discover ways to keep planes flying safely with human cargo intact, the frequency of terror attacks is on the rise and lives continue to be lost. However, one bright spot in this otherwise dark scenario is Israel. As is often the case, Israelis are at the forefront of research and development in this critical area with a flow of innovations that promise to make traveling a little easier and a lot safer. But at bedrock, what makes Israeli security so much more effective than that of other airports is what the director of security for Ben Gurion Airport calls passenger-oriented security or simply the “human factor.”

Before and After September 11

Sometimes we forget that it hasn’t always been this way. Prior to September 11, 2001, airports were very different places. The few security screeners were often very unskilled, hired without significant background checks and provided with little training. Restricted access areas were few and far between as well. Just about anybody could go just about anywhere in most any airport in the world. And airport police were viewed as little more than custodians, according to a US government report filed in 1994.


Ben Gurion arrivals (Photo by Nefesh b’Nefesh)

Today, at peak travel time, many airports have a population that exceeds that of a medium-sized American city. Take Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta (USA), for instance. It is the busiest airport in the world, occupying over 6 million square feet of land with a daily population of over 250,000 people. Like most modern airports, it is a complex location, intertwined with a mesh of runways, hangars, warehouses, and high security storage areas as well as businesses, gas stations, restaurants and banks. Managing such a location is like managing a major metropolis only with a heightened security level most cities don’t face.

Terror in the Skies

On September 11, 2001, nineteen terrorists cleared security on four separate commercial airlines, carrying weapons to facilitate a plan to murder thousands of Americans. Their success changed the world forever. Suddenly, a need for sophisticated and effective security systems to protect passengers was thrust upon governments and airlines all over the world, and significant change happened very quickly. US President George W. Bush provided twenty billion dollars for upgrading intelligence and security which not only affected air traffic in America, but internationally as well. Background checks for passengers and tougher security requirements on baggage were put in place. Worldwide, airport employees, 750,000 in the United States alone, underwent criminal background checks for the first time. Thousands of air marshals were hired and security personnel became the face of air travel. In the ensuing 15 years, changes continued to be made, scanning equipment invented, sniffer dogs added to airport security, and much more.

But still the terror continues. From January 2010 to December 2014, there were about 5,629 terror attacks globally that were significant enough to get media coverage. In 2015, there were over 3,500, nearly three times the number of the preceding five years combined. Certainly not all of these attacks included airplanes and/or airports, but that number is increasing as well. In 1980, only one terror attack involved a plane, while 2000 saw four. From 2010 to date, the number stands at 22. Fortunately increased intelligence and airport security allowed authorities to thwart several.

Technology Is Good; Human Factor Is Better

Modern security advances, many from Israel, have ensured that planes are still the safest way to travel and the pipeline is filled with some very promising innovations. A remote control technology for flying an airliner has been developed that would have allowed security officials to take over the cockpits of those planes on September 11, controlling the flight path and landing. Bio-monitors, explosive trace detection devices and video surveillance at airports that analyzes facial expressions are being developed. Other devices will remotely scan for irregular blood pressure and heart rates. The same type of sensors can be installed on board the plane, allowing flight crews to monitor passengers in flight. Weaponry for air marshals that will allow them to disable terrorists without harming other passengers is being developed, as is a body-armor so thin that flight crew uniforms will be made from it.

But Ben Gurion Airport in Israel is known as one of the safest airports globally, despite the terror threats that continually plague that nation. El Al, Israel’s flagship airline, is routinely rated the most secure in the world. In its history, only one El Al plane has ever been hijacked and the airline has never suffered a crash.

Raphael Ron, a former director of security at Ben Gurion for five years, says it is the human factor that sets Israeli security apart. Interviewing every passenger before they reach check-in is key, Ron says, and though they may not seem like it, those interviewers are highly trained in interrogation. Similarly trained, armed security forces patrol the terminals as do plain-clothes officers, all watching people for signs of nervousness or dishonesty.

Technology is used as well, of course. Every checked bag is put through a pressure chamber which will trigger any possible explosive devices contained within and robots constantly patrol the airport grounds. Virtual security allows authorities to view faces and monitor body movements from the moment people enter the airport until their plane takes off.

“Other airports have incorporated many of the technological advances that Israel uses,” Ron says, “but until they take the human factor as seriously as we do, they will not have the same success that we have.”

Source: By Cheryl Hauer, Associate Editor

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