No country in the world faces more terrorist threats than Israel, and no airport in the world faces more such threats than Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. The Israelis have of course been the gold standard for establishing and maintaining security in all its forms. Much of the airport’s security protocol is achieved through a combination of comprehensive due diligence, common sense, and consistency - which, one would think would be the objective of airport authorities throughout the world. Yet very few other airports have achieved the level of security that exists at Ben Gurion. We explore why that is the case.
All vehicles that arrive at Ben Gurion must first pass through a preliminary security checkpoint where armed guards search the vehicle and exchange a few words with the driver and occupants to gauge their mood and intentions. Plain clothes officers patrol the area outside the terminal building, assisted by sophisticated hidden surveillance cameras which operate around the clock. Armed security personnel patrol the terminal and keep a close eye on people entering the terminal building. If any persons seem suspicious or anxious, security personnel will approach them and engage them in conversation in an effort to gauge their intentions and mood. Vehicles are subject to a weight sensor, a trunk x-ray and an undercarriage scan.
Departing passengers are questioned by highly trained security agents before they reach the check-in counter. These interviews could last as little as one minute or as long as an hour, based on such factors as age, race, religion and destination. Unlike in many western airports, passengers are not required to remove their shoes while passing through physical screening processes. Furthermore, there are no sophisticated x-ray machines; rather, traditional metal detectors are still in operation.
Raphael Ron, a former director of security at Ben Gurion for 5 years, calls the passenger-oriented security system more focused on the ‘human factor,’ based on the assumption that terrorist attacks are carried out by people who can be found and have been stopped through the use of this simple but effective security methodology. That said, there is a great array of equipment and technology available for the authorities to help combat any potential terrorist attacks. For example, checked baggage is put in a pressure chamber to trigger any possible explosive devices and robots patrol the airport grounds.
Ben Gurion airport does not sub-contract its security to private companies. Given their priority in ensuring safety and preventing terrorist attacks, the personnel on duty at Ben Gurion are highly trained army graduates who have specialist skills in detection and interrogation. They leave nothing to chance and are able to monitor the most minute details. Officials think of passenger security as a series of ‘concentric’ circles, with increasing scrutiny as individuals arrive closer to the plane.
Agents also pay close attention to the parts of the airport that passengers do not frequent, such as fences around the airport’s perimeter, which are monitored with cameras at all times, and radar systems that check for intrusions when weather prevents cameras from effectively broadcasting. Ben Gurion has of course experienced some lapses in security. In a November 2002 incident, a passenger slipped through airport security with a pocketknife and attempted to storm the cockpit of an El Al flight en route from Tel Aviv to Istanbul.
While no injuries were reported and the attacker was subdued by onboard flight marshals, the airport was closed for some time. The attacker was an Israeli Arab who had managed to evade security personnel when checking in. Most people would imagine such an event may not have happened if the passenger had been passing through what is now standard technology at most western Europe airports. The Israelis’ focus on the human factor is not of course infallible. Ben Gurion may be more vulnerable to an attack from a disillusioned Israeli citizen as a result. If a terrorist network were able to recruit and train Israeli citizens, they could of course potentially evade the strict security procedures in place at Ben Gurion.
But the range of methods employed at Ben Gurion has proven to be extremely effective in preventing terrorist attacks, as its history demonstrates. Even so, many security and terrorist experts believe that, if this were always accompanied by the latest passenger-oriented security technology, Ben Gurion’s security would be even more robust.
The Israelis have taken on board the concerns of civil liberties groups and researchers in developing technology that could ease concerns about racial profiling, through the use of innovative check-in kiosks, but this can never of course replace the intuition and gut instinct that accompanies human interaction. Many airport authorities around the world have sought to benefit from the Israelis’ approach to airport security, though none use the entire range of tools at their disposal. In the end, limitations on financial and human resources, and preferred methodologies, determine just how thorough or inadequate security protocols can be.
If more airport authorities were to adopt Ben Gurion’s approach, surely it would be more difficult for those intending to do harm to succeed. There is a lot to be said for emphasizing eye contact, behavioral cues, and instinct when addressing the subject of airport security. Once again, the Israelis have led the way.