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Alternatives 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 security measures.

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 too.

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 safe passengers.

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 Problem

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 Screening

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 this 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 process.

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'!  However, 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 Well

About 5.5 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 than Massachusetts).

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 security risk.

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 Israel.

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 individual passenger.

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.

Cost Issues

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.

Summary

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 :

1.  Israeli style airport security
2.  Profiling passengers
3.  The Limitations of the TSA
4.  Protecting Airports
5.  General counter-terrorism measures
6.  Sundry other ideas (coming soon)

 

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Originally published 3 Dec 2010, last update 08 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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