to Present Airport Security
Can the Israeli Airport Security Process
Work in the US?
Contrary to the image some people have, most people go
from the car park to the gate at Ben Gurion Airport in
Israel in 25 minutes or less.
Israeli security is extremely effective, but
unfortunately could not be applied in the US.
Part 1 of a series on
alternative and better approaches to US airport security.
See links at bottom for additional parts.
Some people fear and loathe
what they perceive to be Israeli style airport security, but
everyone agrees that it is ultra effective.
With the problems with current
airport security in the US, there has been a growing chorus of
people calling for us to adopt an Israeli style security system.
But would what works for
Israel also work for us in the US? Alas, probably not.
Read on in this first part of
a new series about possible alternatives to current airport
Airport Security Just Got a
Whole Lot Nastier
The last few months have
seen the latest evolution of so-called airport security in the
US, and unilaterally imposed by the US on foreign airlines
wishing to fly to the US
Present airport security -
fancy machinery and fastidious searching notwithstanding - is
ineffective, inefficient, and massively intrusive and invasive,
making millions of regular honest Americans upset and
embarrassed (to say nothing of exposing them to possibly
dangerous radiation), while doing nothing whatsoever to protect
us against determined terrorists - other than taking pocket
knives, miniature key chain ornaments shaped like guns, and
other countless other harmless objects from otherwise honest
About the kindest thing that
can be said of present security methods is that they may
possibly have some type of deterrent effect on would be
terrorists, because we've not had a single terrorist attempt on
any flights operating within or from the US since 9/11.
The problems and weaknesses
in the present security methods are discussed in my article 'Finding
Hidden Explosives - An Impossible Task'.
Solutions to the Security
So, now we've identified the
present problems with airport security (in the linked article
above), what should be done to improve it?
Most security experts
(possessing widely varying degrees of true security expertise)
talk about one, two, three or four different options :
Let's consider each of these
to see how applicable and effective they could be in the US.
The balance of this article looks at the first concept -
adopting an Israeli approach to airport security.
Subsequent parts in this
series will consider the other three points. These will be
published in the near future.
Israeli Style Airport Security
Although most of us have
never traveled to Israel and so never been subjected to the
interrogation that passengers get on flights to and from Israel,
the process is reasonably well understood, based on reports from
people who have traveled there and newspaper articles such as
rather laudatory one.
Upon arrival at the airport
you'll be greeted by a security screener, who will ask you all
manner of questions about the purpose of your trip, the work you
do, and various other personal details.
He (or she) may ask you to
prove your knowledge of your field of expertise by asking you
technical questions about the subject. He may ask you to
show proof of various statements you make, he may ask to look at
pictures on your camera or cell phone, to read through text
messages and emails, and so on.
It also seems that in some
cases, these people already know something about you, and about
the organizations or individuals you are visiting in Israel.
This rigorous screening
process may be supplemented by a careful hand search through
your baggage, asking you questions about items you are taking
with you. In total, you might spend as little as five
minutes going through this process, or as much as half an hour
or more. It seems to depend on how much they have already
pre-rated you as being potentially suspicious (with this
pre-rating sometimes being as simplistic as having an Arab
sounding name, and other times implying having done some
background research), and how 'well' you do in the interview
For obviously Israeli
nationals, the process is painless and speedy. Even
foreign visitors usually speed through the process with no
problems - but of course that is hardly newsworthy and is less
likely to generate a headline 'Passenger reports polite pleasant
experience going through Israeli airport security'!
this recent article suggests that as few as 2% of all
passengers get to see the steel fist within the velvet glove of
Israeli airport security.
It seems the Israeli process
works due to several things. First, it uses skillfully
trained specialists who understand how to observe anxiety,
uncertainty and nervousness in the people they interview.
If you stutter, stammer, sweat, and shake, then you'll have some
more 'splaining to do, for sure.
Second, if you are traveling
with a fake cover story, their careful and expert questioning
may quite likely expose the lie. If you say you're a high
school math teacher, but can't then solve a simple algebraic
equation, you'll suddenly find yourself with a whole bunch more
questions to answer.
This process works
consistently well, as is evidenced by Israel's perfect safety
record in terms of keeping terrorists off the planes that fly
to, from, and within Israel.
Because of this, many people
advocate the US introducing a similar procedure. The
reasoning seems to go that we're at least as clever as Israel,
so why can't we too have this careful interrogation process at
our airports, too.
In theory, we could indeed
duplicate this. But in reality, we probably never can,
because it is too extremely resource intensive.
Israeli Methods Don't Scale
million people a year fly out of Israel's primary airport -
Ben Gurion, close to Tel Aviv, and this single airport
represents the largest part of all air traffic in Israel.
To put this in perspective, 7.5 million people live in Israel, a
country of about 8,000 sq miles in size (in other words, just a
little smaller than Massachusetts, with just a few more people
It is probable that every
Israeli citizen is in their internal security database and has
been pre-rated as somewhere between a very low and very high
Now compare that to the US,
which has about 800 million airline passengers a year, about 600
commercial airports (the largest of which, Atlanta, serves 88
million passengers a year), and a population of about 310
million, spread out over 3.54 million square miles of territory.
In other words, the US has
almost 150 times as many people traveling by air, has a
population 40 times greater, and is 442 times larger than
This huge difference in
numbers is only part of the story. Having so many more
passengers, airports, people in general, and so on doesn't just
linearly scale up the complexity of the security, it massively
complicates it on a more geometric basis. In some
respects, a country with twice as many citizens and twice as
many travelers has perhaps four times rather than twice as many
challenges as does the smaller country it is being compared to.
This is because there are so many more opportunities for
mistaken identities, for errors and ambiguities, so many more
people to track and so on.
Another analogy might be
that in Israel, the security people are looking for one needle
in a bale of hay. In the US, security needs to find each
and every one of a whole box of needles, spread throughout an
entire barn full of hay.
In Israel, it is possible
for a reasonably broadly educated person with good general
knowledge of the country as a whole to be able to converse on
many subjects to do with Israel without needing any research or
prompting. But the average American - be they working an
airport security detail or anything else - is extremely unlikely
to have sufficient knowledge about the country as a whole to be
able to casually and conversationally talk about towns and
cities, places, organizations, and everything else in other US
states, unlike how many/most Israelis can talk knowledgeably
about much/most of their country.
Air travel is expensive
to/from Israel, and with a ratio of air travel to citizens that
is 3.5 times less than it is in the US, it is easier to both pay
for and create the resource needed to carefully screen each
Think about what would
happen in the US. 800 million passengers, and let's say
each passenger gets a 5-10 minute interview and that each person
also has 5-10 minutes of 'behind the scenes' computer research
done on them. If we say each screener works 1500 hours a
year actually screening people, and if we say there is one
supervisory person for each four screeners, then this would
require an army of 220,000 extra people added to the TSA.
When you adjust for shift work and other such factors, the
220,000 number will increase still further - perhaps to 300,000
or probably more; and if we add further administrative staff,
well, before you know where we are, we have half a million new
security employees added to the TSA.
It would require huge
additions to airports for the massively increased lines of
people and interview stations. It would probably also add
somewhere between $25 - $50 to every airline ticket price - and
because I'm guessing the 800 million passenger figure actually
means 800 million flights, then a roundtrip ticket with two
flights would go up by $50 - $100, just for this extra security.
By comparison, using my same
figures, Israeli style security, in Israel, requires only 1500
people, and possibly even less depending on how selective they
are with the people they select for more extensive interviewing
('how selective they are' - this is a polite way of saying 'how
much profiling they do - see the next part of this series for a
discussion on profiling).
Another study has suggested that the Israeli security costs
are in the order of $77 per passenger/trip, and that current US
costs are almost exactly one tenth of that ($7.80). This
study ended up suggesting that a mere 71 seconds of additional
scrutiny in the US would add $25 to the ticket price.
This study came up with different figures (probably for a
different time period) but the relativity was closely similar -
Israeli style security is nearly ten times as expensive.
There are other complicating
factors as well - for example, American citizens are less likely
to passively accept some of the aggressive screening and
interviewing that the Israelis sometimes conduct, but I think
you get the picture.
The Israeli approach to
airline/airport security is excellent for Israel. But our
much larger and much more diverse country, with a much higher
rate of people flying, is unlikely to take the Israeli model and scale
it up to meet US needs, and to accept the massive increase in
costs associated with it.
Israeli style security
screening unquestionably works well Israelis and Israel.
But transferring this to the
US would require a huge army of highly trained screening
personnel and massive increases in security costs. Due to
the difficulty in getting, training, motivating and keeping such
security personnel, and the much greater complexities of our
much bigger and more diverse country, it is unlikely that the
resulting security would be as effective as in Israel.
As expensive as in Israel -
unquestionably. But as effective - probably not.
The US aviation industry is
not set up to support potentially $50 - $150 extra per roundtrip
ticket for enhanced security.
However, we need not reject
Israeli style screening of passengers entirely. It may
have a limited role to play, in certain cases, with certain
passengers. But this would require a willingness to accept
that some passengers are 'higher risk' than other passengers,
which opens up the concept of passenger profiling.
This is part of a
series on alternatives to present airport security.
Please also see :
Israeli style airport security
2. Profiling passengers
3. The Limitations of the
5. General counter-terrorism measures
6. Sundry other ideas (coming soon)
Related Articles, etc
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3 Dec 2010, last update
26 Aug 2018
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