Eye on the United States

Fear of Flying: An Israeli Look at U.S Air Safety

In late August, my children and I arrived at the crack of dawn at the American Airlines international terminal at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, to undergo security procedures for our 8:30 a.m. flight to return home to Israel via London.

Upon arriving at the terminal building, I was astonished to see only one harried police officer whose job it was to ensure that cars weren’t left unattended curbside. What a difference from Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport, where all cars entering the airport compound are subject to inspection to determine whether cars and passengers seeking entry into the airport will have to submit to a more thorough check. This initial screening process is the first layer in a professional, unified, and organized security system at Israel’s airports, begun in 1972 after a terrorist shooting attack in the arrival hall of Ben-Gurion Airport by the Japanese Red Army that left 26, mostly Puerto Rican pilgrims, dead.

A skycap assisted us with our luggage, gave us a cart, and explained that we should hold on to it if we wanted to get our luggage easily from the check-in counter to the X-ray machines. During our 15-minute wait in the check-in line, no uniformed police officers or National Guard personnel were visible. At Ben-Gurion, uniformed police as well as unobtrusive plainclothes armed police officers keep a watchful eye. Many are wired, enabling them to rush to an emergency or receive directions to follow any passenger, who, after going through the initial luggage check-in, is observed leaving the building; suspicion arises once a passenger decides to leave the building after check-in.

At the American Airlines check-in counter, a representative asked for our tickets and passports. Although we are Israelis residing in Israel, we are dual nationals holding both Israeli and U.S. passports. I handed her our U.S. passports, which must be shown to enter and leave the United States. The ticket representative held up our passports, slanted them to see the American eagle hologram on them, and then focused her eyes on our tickets. I asked her where the U.S. Immigration passport control was located so that we could be “stamped out” of the country, as is customary in Israel. At Ben-Gurion, all passengers who have completed luggage check-in pass through gates leading up to passport control, where they are cleared with a rubber stamp in their passport after a brief computer check. This serves as an opportunity to catch suspects or people leaving the country illegally. These Israeli Ministry of Interior computers are connected to the Israeli police and Interpol.

The American Airlines representative, however, replied that people exiting the United States need not go through immigration first. I was surprised that in the post-Sept. 11 environment, no U.S. government agency sees fit to verify the identities of passengers boarding international flights. But that was not all. The American Airlines counter agent did not ask me the standard security questions about my luggage and travel plans. Does it really suffice that the ticket agent checks the identity of passengers without computer verification? Didn’t the Sept. 11 terrorists present identification papers to the airline ticket agents before boarding the four domestic flights they turned into missiles? Wouldn’t that indicate that a change in procedures is in order? Apparently not.

Once our passports were viewed and our tickets were verified, we received our seat assignments and had our luggage weighed and tagged. We were then asked to wait for the American Airlines representative who would accompany us to the X-ray machines. Once the airline representative gathered a group of about 20 people, she herded us out of the building toward the X-ray machine area, which is located curbside. She then went back to fetch another group. Our group of 20 stretched out along the side of the building, where we were quickly joined by another group of passengers in line to be screened. There was no curbside security and no one verified if those presenting luggage for X-ray held boarding passes for an outgoing flight. Anyone could easily check in a bag containing explosives that might or might not be picked up by X-ray, then get into a cab and speed off.

A similar security breach would be unthinkable at Ben-Gurion, where passengers are required to present tickets and identification papers to the security officers, who verify identity and ask questions about luggage and the purpose of a trip. Based upon those answers, the security officer may individually X-ray or even hand-check luggage before the passengers can proceed to the check-in counters of the individual airlines. At Ben-Gurion, all luggage is sent through X-ray. At Kennedy, however, the process seemed to be a selective one, as not all international passengers were sent to the curbside luggage X-ray.

After our bags went through the X-ray machine, we had to wait in line for about 20 minutes before we could go through the metal detectors and pass our carry-on bags through X-ray. My children went through first and were cleared. I took out my laptop, placed it in a plastic tray, and went through the metal detector. It buzzed, and a female security guard armed with a hand-held wand immediately accosted me.

She gruffly ordered me to take off my shoes, called out “shoe check,” and barked at me to follow her. I explained that I was traveling with my children and that I wanted them to stay with me. She called her supervisor and two additional armed female security guards, who allowed the children to stay but kept them from making any contact with me. I was ordered to keep quiet, face my personal belongings, remove all jewelry, spread my legs and arms, lift up my blouse to expose my belt, and lift up my skirt.

I was “wanded” again and again. My bare legs and feet received special attention, and I was asked to lift up each bare foot for thorough inspection. Each time the wand passed over my waist and chest, it buzzed. I pointed to my belt and tried to explain that I was wearing an underwire bra, but I was told to be quiet and was checked again.

This degrading and embarrassing process went on for several minutes in the open area near the metal detectors, while on the table in front of me my carry-on luggage was searched and my laptop was checked for explosives.

Any time I attempted to ask a question or offer an explanation, I was curtly told to shut up by the supervisor, who seemed to take particular pride in the fact that she had discovered two passports in my personal belongings. This discovery seemed to encourage her to request a check of my children’s carry-on luggage as well. After all our personal belongings had been searched and nothing dangerous had been found, the supervisor at last told us that we were free to go.

The entire ordeal left me with the feeling that U.S. airport security is a far cry from the security checks at Ben-Gurion Airport and airports throughout Europe, where all security staff undergo specialized, uniform training, including instructions on how to treat passengers with courtesy. Ben-Gurion’s security staff is composed of professional police officers, soldiers, and civilians who have completed their military service. In Europe, professional security guards handle airport security checks.

But in the United States, security is still handled by private companies seeking to make a profit, following procedures so faulty that even an ordinary traveler like myself can easily spot security lapses.

I was left with the impression that security procedures at Kennedy International Airport have not begun to respond seriously to the exigencies of 21st-century security needs, despite the metal detectors and X-ray machines. Moreover, I believe that American Airlines—two of whose planes were hijacked on Sept. 11—has failed to absorb the lessons of that day.

Instead, the company has focused on ineffective and inconvenient security procedures for the sole purpose of pacifying the traveling public.

I returned to Israel plagued by two disturbing impressions: One, the U.S. government has done little to tighten security at the airports.

And two, it seems just a matter of time until the next terrorist attack on the United States will be carried out with a hijacked plane whose hijackers, yet again, slip through the security cracks.