Why Israeli Airport Security Won’t Work in USA
One refrain we’ve heard lots of since the 9/11 attacks, with an uptick every time there’s a new incidents, is that the United States should get serious about airport security and be more like the Israelis.
FP’s Annie Lowrey recounts a personal trip through the security at Ben Gurion.
Once inside, a team of pleasant airport employees approached me and asked if we could speak for a few minutes. We moved to a table in a gated section. This was the famed Israeli airport security screening. The guards, all neatly dressed and young — most, apparently, are just out of the IDF — spoke perfect English. They questioned me for about 20 minutes, politely and intensely — why I was there, what I had seen, where had I been, who had I met with, where I had stayed. They repeated questions. They took notes. They switched off. One member went through my bag item by item, swabbing and testing for residue. Finally, she led me through a set of doors, and wished me a good flight.
No shoe removal. No lines. No cramped corners. No underpaid, overworked security guards snapping gum. The screening happened with several professional, calm, and unrushed guards standing on the other side of a table from one passenger. Here in the States, it is an angry line of passengers wending before one security agent, often with eyes glued to the bag-screening monitor or a driver’s license. The former feels like scrutiny, the latter feels like a hassle.
The Israeli security model is (as noted in the article) more about the passenger than their baggage. This approach is both effective, time-consuming, and “racist”: the profilers have a conversation with each passenger; as I’m an Israeli Jew, I always get the abbreviated treatment — focusing more on where my bags have been since I’ve packed them. As a foreigner, you get a much more in-depth grilling. As a Muslim? They want to know your shoe size, and then a whole ‘nother screener comes over and asks you everything all over again, just to see that you keep your story straight. Like they say in the article, the conversations they have are not so much about what you say as how you say it. The screeners are taught to iterate a few levels deep into your story and see that it doesn’t break down under scrutiny.
The reality is that there are few enough openings that the program can be selective. I’d say, as a generalization, screeners here possess above-average intelligence, whereas your average TSA screener seems to be a working stiff, blindly following some not-too-complex screening algorithm in a three-ring binder. The number of screeners requisite for staffing all of the US airports precludes the TSA from exclusively employing screeners with the ability to make “judgment calls”. There just aren’t enough smart people with the desire to work a screener’s job in the US.
Well, for one, the United States would need a whole lot more security guards — at least according to my back-of-the-envelope math. Say each passenger flying through a U.S. airport received on average 10 minutes of questioning from one guard. That would work out to 7.35 billion minutes, or 123 million hours, of work annually. We’d need 3 million full-time guards to perform it. That’s 200,000 more people than the total number of active and reserve military personnel, and twice the number of U.S. Wal-Mart employees. It would cost somewhere north of $150 billion a year. Sheesh.
Working the math out another way, let’s say that the U.S. decided to spend as much per passenger as Israel does, according to the Bloomberg analysis. We’d then pour around $62.2 billion a year into airport security — more than 10 times what we currently spend on airport security, and about as much as we spent fighting the war in Afghanistan last year.
Aside from the culture, manning, and cost issues — which strike me as insurmountable — the other problems with copying the Israeli model are time and space. Israel is, after all, roughly the size of a rich American’s backyard. So, not a lot of domestic flights. And not all that many flights to its nearby neighbors, either, since Israel is surrounded by hellholes full of people who hate Israelis. Americans, by contrast, fly constantly because of the vast distances between business associates and relatives. It’s nothing to get on a plane for a business meeting or holiday meal and fly back that evening.
The upshot of all this is that American airports are typically crowded. Now, imagine if we had to spend 15-20 minutes talking to each passenger to determine whether they’re terrorists. Add another two or three hours at the airport waiting to get through security. Where do you put everybody?
And, remember, we’re talking about a virtually non-existent threat. We had the 9/11 attacks, which were truly shocking because of their surprise value and the devastation they caused on the ground. In the ensuing eight-plus years, we’ve had two other serious attempts, both of which failed through a combination of stupid terrorists and proactive passengers.
We don’t know precisely how many would-be terrorists have been apprehended before they could board a plane. Since we haven’t heard about them, however, I strongly suspect that the number is less than one. After all, the feds love to hold news conferences to tout foiled terrorist plots, even ones that were at best aspirational.