Real airport security — by Spartacus *UPDATED*

Sometimes, a reader leaves a comment that is too good not to elevate to post status.  This time, it was Spartacus, writing in response to my question about real ways (not stupid, embarrassing, intrusive ways) to improve airport security:


A childhood friend of mine got married in the Tel Aviv area in 2002. By happy coincidence, the wedding date fell squarely in the middle of my one-and-only European vacation so far, so catching one more flight over to the other end of the Med was a no-brainer. Pricewise, it made the most sense to Chunnel over to Paris and round-trip from there, where there were two options: Air France or El Al. About the same price, so toward which was I more favorably disposed, ideologically speaking? Duh. El Al it was.

Got to the airport in Paris way early, like you’re supposed to for international flights, and went to check in. The ticket agent said something about going over somewhere to answer some questions or something. Questions? OK, sure, whatever. A trim, young, friendly, and utterly charming security gal appeared from out of nowhere, led me in my confusion over to a little kiosk, and began to ask me questions. All kinds of questions, and all very enjoyably and conversationally asked. Where was I from? What did I do for a living? Why was I travelling to Israel? What did I plan to see while there? Where had I been on my vacation so far? How did I get from Point A to Point B? And from B to C? What did I see while in B? What was most enjoyable about C? Is the food good there? Oh, and how did I get from A to B again? And if I wanted to get from B to D, why did I go through C on Mode X and then switch to Mode Y when it would have been faster and cheaper just to go direct by Mode Z? (“Dang,” I thought, “I spent two months planning this vacation, and she’s right! Why didn’t I think of that?”). Oh, and how is the food in C again? Classic interrogation techniques, not unlikely learned in the IDF, and flawlessly performed by a very quick-witted security professional.

In retrospect, it all made sense. My profile: young, single, male, non-Jewish, non-Israeli, no previous flights on El Al, and travelling alone. So, yeah, they naturally wanted to talk to me. The Q&A actually lasted about 80 minutes — a fact I completely missed until looking at my watch later. Between the friendly conversational tone, the fast pace, and her crystal-blue eyes… [sigh]… it seemed like about five minutes. When we were done, she escorted me back to a security room where I could see the last stages of the examination of my backpack: 35mm film rolls were being taken out of the plastic cannisters, X-rayed, and carefully put back in; my neatly folded and rolled underwear was being neatly re-rolled exactly as it had been; and so on. No cubic centimeter of my pack had been left unexamined. But the examination of the pack was unnecessary, since by the time I got on that flight, El Al knew everything that was in my mind and in my heart.

Security-wise, the flight to Tel Aviv was uneventful until we were almost there. You know how they now ban people from lining up outside the restroom in the front? Well, I was almost all the way in the back, in between the two aisles, and a bunch of guys started gathering all around. Real Orthodox-looking types. Since we were almost there, I was beginning to wonder if they couldn’t just hold it until we landed. I was startled nearly out of my seat when they all suddenly burst out in some Hebrew song. So they weren’t really waiting for the restroom after all! I still don’t know what they were singing, but I think it was something like, “Paise be to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Israel! We will soon aquire the localizer signal to ILS Runway 27 and begin our pre-landing checklist!” (But coming from the guy who thought they were all going to the restroom, you might want to take that with a grain of salt.) It was interesting and different, which is cool.

My friend successfully got married, and about a week later, I was back at the airport. Just for good measure, they had me spend another very enjoyable 80 minutes of Q&A with another very attractive security gal. After being released to the departure gate, I looked out the big plate-glass window. Airplanes shifted busily around the tarmac as the pinkish glow of the coming dawn enveloped the entire scene. “Beautiful,” I thought, as I pulled out my camera. About 3.6 seconds later, another very attractive security gal quietly appeared from out of nowhere (yes, this was becoming a recurrent theme) and gently informed me that no pictures were allowed in the terminal. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t know.” But it made sense. And it showed once again that they didn’t miss a thing.

Back at Heathrow a few days later, I went up to the United counter to check in for my flight back to the States. The ticket agent, who fit all of the negative stereotypes of a DMV worker, followed the United Airlines security screening procedure — she pulled out a small card, from which she read two questions: “Are you a terr… terr… terr… Oh, whatever… Do you have any bombs with you today?” Not especially looking up to register my responses to these questions, she gave me my ticket. And the security procedure which had bothered me not in the least on my way over to England now, in comparison, made me fear for my life.

I would fly El Al again almost anytime, anywhere… maybe even Point A to Point A, just for the heck of it.

UPDATE:  This is a good companion piece to Spartacus’ El Al post.