JERUSALEM - After the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, a spokesman for El Al, the Israeli national airline, said: "One of the ways we maintain the security of our passengers is not to talk about how we maintain the security of our passengers." They remain equally reticent after the plane plot scare at British airports.
However, much of the drill is familiar to frequent flyers through Ben-Gurion Airport. A former pilot, speaking off the record, yesterday filled in some of the details.
Passengers are asked to report three hours before takeoff. They are checked at a security barrier on the road to the terminal. Inside, they and their baggage are checked by a trained team. They ask intrusive questions: Where did you stay? Who did you see? What's on your laptop? Do you have family in Israel? (My wife and I had to separately recite the names of our seven Israeli grandchildren.)
They have no inhibitions about ethnic profiling. Arabs, including well-known Israeli Arab citizens, are checked more stringently than Jewish or other travellers. In one case, the editor of an Arabic newspaper was invited with other editors to accompany President Moshe Katsav on a trip abroad. The security team put him through the mill. He felt so insulted that he went home. Security works to its own rules. "They're not nice," said one insider, "but they work." They single out other "high-risk" groups. After two British Asians blew themselves up in a Tel Aviv bar in April 2003, British Asians can expect a hard time. So can women travelling alone. At Heathrow 30 years ago, checkers stopped a pregnant Irish woman, whose Palestinian boyfriend had given her a booby-trapped cassette recorder set to explode at altitude. Security has not forgotten.
At the check-in counter, ground staff scrutinise the passport and the ticket. They won't accept a ticket without a sticker from the security checkers. Once through passport control, where your name is bounced through a computer, you and your hand luggage go through rigorous screening. The scanners check for metal and explosives. Unseen by the passengers, suitcases are said sometimes to be put through a pressure chamber. If it's going to blow up, better on the ground than in the air. Bags are checked against the passenger list. If anyone doesn't board the plane, his or her luggage is removed before take off, however long the delay and inconvenience.
On board, El Al airliners have long had double doors to keep passengers away from the pilots. You need a code to get in. Only after the first door closes behind you, will the second door open. If the captain doesn't know you, you won't get in. There are reinforced steel floors separating the passenger cabin from the baggage hold. An exploding suitcase, like the one which killed 270 people over Lockerbie in 1988, would probably be contained, though a bigger explosion might still wreak havoc. Every Israeli flight has at least one highly trained sky marshal, equipped to neutralise hijackers. Jumbo jets have at least two. They have only had to act twice, but they succeeded on both occasions.
Since the start of the year, Israeli airliners at most risk have been fitted with electronic counter-measures to divert surface-to-air missiles. The terrorists keep inventing new tricks; the Israelis keep coming up with new answers.