El Al Doesn't Trust the TSA

They want to do security themselves at Newark Airport, as they already do at four other U.S. airports.

No other airline has such an arrangement with U.S. officials, authorities acknowledged. At the four other airports, El Al has installed its own security software at bomb-detection machines, which authorities said is more sensitive than that used by American carriers.

Posted on May 23, 2006 at 3:30 PM44 Comments

Comments

AG May 23, 2006 4:34 PM

Is there any part of the US government doing the job it is getting paid for?

TSA, NSA, FBI, FEMA, US Border Patrol, CIA… on and on they all “need more funding” “need more employees” “need more control”

PBS seems to the the only government unity that I like anymore…

The IRS seems to be the only one that gets the job done.

If I had to grade our setup right now I would give us a C-

Phil Karn May 23, 2006 4:38 PM

I’ve gone through El Al security at Newark Airport, and to say they’re thorough is an understatement. I was asked so many detailed questions about the purpose of my trip that I began to wonder if it was a cover for industrial espionage (this was a business trip).

The interesting thing about El Al, at least at that time (1997) is that once they decide from the interview that you’re not a terrorist, they didn’t seem to bother you much.

Anonymous May 23, 2006 4:56 PM

AG: The Border Patrol is trying to do its job, but is simply understaffed. Congress authorized nearly 10,000 additional agents be trained over five years starting in FY2005, but the Bush administration has seen fit to throttle that number back to barely a tenth of the scale. (Now, of course, he wants to ramp it up to provide 6000 new agents in the next two years.)

From all I’ve ever heard, El Al security is well-planned, well-executed, and incredibly difficult to pierce, while not being abusive. It may be more invasive than some would like to deal with on a common basis, but I’ve heard few serious complaints about them.

Yonatan Zunger May 23, 2006 5:25 PM

This has been El Al’s SOP for a long time; if you fly out of LAX, you’ll notice that they have a completely separate security infrastructure. First they run their own bag screening and interrogation at the check-in line; then at the gate, a bit before check-in begins they clear everyone out, cordon it off and search the area (quite thoroughly!), then check every person again themselves before letting them back in and allowing them to board.

Very professional; it’s the only airline where I don’t feel that I could smuggle anything I wanted onto the airplane without trying too hard.

Even more curiously, they manage to do this while remaining very friendly: a noticeable counterpoint to the “remove your shoes!” orders routinely barked by TSA screeners.

I’d call this a case of one group (El Al) that’s interested in actually securing the flight, versus another group (the TSA) which is primarily concerned with covering their asses. The visible difference is a flexible operation that adapts to the circumstance versus a set of fixed, and often completely arbitrary, procedures.

Apples and unicorns May 23, 2006 5:51 PM

“No other airline has such an arrangement with U.S. officials, authorities acknowledged.”

No other airline NEEDS such an arrangement.

El Al has reason to feel this threatened.
SouthWest Airlines does not.

IMO, it is fitting that El Al take extreme precautions, while TSA take reasonable precautions.

I can’t really see this as a knock on TSA.

Unixronin May 23, 2006 8:12 PM

@AG: The IRS is as screwed up as any of the rest. Its computer systems can’t talk to each other, and I’m told there’s no-one at the IRS who actually understands the tax code in its entirety any more.

Anonymous May 23, 2006 8:44 PM

@Unixronin

That, and for some reason when the IRS mails a tax return, it takes about a month to arrive, unlike absolutely anything else one drops in the mail.

BOB!! May 23, 2006 9:23 PM

El Al doesn’t trust anybody. Unlike Michael Boyd (quoted in the article), I don’t consider this an indictment of TSA – as Apples and unicorns said above, El Al exercises security which is reasonable for El Al, but is excessive for pretty much anybody else.

KL May 23, 2006 9:35 PM

@BOB!!
The problem is TSA has less secure but stricter (harsher) policy than EL-AL: I used to fly El-Al 6-7 times a year for many years to/from various countries and they never complained about my swiss army knife or asked me to remove the shoes.

Dan May 23, 2006 9:51 PM

Now, irony here.

Back in the early ’80’s these guys offered to teach the US how to do airport security. They were aware of the dangers if somebody decided to either bomb a plane or use one as a weapon. The US refused on the basis of hubris : “We’re the US, nobody would do that to us.”

Now, here we are, 20 years later, marvelling at how effective these guys are, and wondering why the TSA can’t get it right.

Gaius Obvious May 23, 2006 9:53 PM

“The problem is TSA has less secure but stricter (harsher) policy than EL-AL: I used to fly El-Al 6-7 times a year for many years to/from various countries and they never complained about my swiss army knife or asked me to remove the shoes.”

That’s because El Al screeens out terrorists, while the TSA screens out weapons. TSA would not mind a weaponless terrorist aboard, while El Al would not mind a non-threatening person who has a potential weapon.

Tom Davis May 23, 2006 11:05 PM

Yonatan Zunger is spot on. El Al has an interest in securing planes, crews, and passengers against terrorist action because its El Al’s bottom line. They’re doing it for greed. And that’s why it works. The same reason Boeing has experts studying every Boeing air crash, and the same reason and Stouffers has started offering no-additives meals.

At the same time, “Apples and unicorns” is also correct in that it is doubtful that SouthWest needs the same level of concern as does El Al. The problem is that with the TSA, SouthWest doesn’t have any reason to consider their security needs. If airlines were responsible for their own security procedures, then the proper costs of security would become part of the airlines bottom line and the airlines would make sure that expenditures were actually going to help improve security and not provide a place for agents to take out their frustrations on passengers.

The only problem with that is ensuring that airlines meet a minimum security obligation to prevent their aircraft from being used as weapons, which could probably be done better by requiring that airlines insure each flight against such a possibility. The insurance companies would certainly provide a better certification system than any that a committee of the FAA might devise.

Yonatan Zunger May 23, 2006 11:38 PM

In response to Apples and Unicorns, I agree in part. Certainly El Al has a much larger threat profile (it would be a target of honor for most terrorists), and so it needs a higher level of security. But there are three reasons why Southwest might want the same.

First, TSA security right now is effectively nil; if Southwest believes there to be any threat at all, they need to either implement security themselves or (more economically) pressure TSA into implementing a real model.

Second, with a few exceptions (like El Al), our airports operate on a shared web of trust: once you’re past a checkpoint at Nowhere Local Airport, you can fly to a large airport and already be inside the security perimeter. So long as this is true, you can’t secure a Southwest flight between two small cities any less than you would secure the most secure flight in the web of trust.

Third, the threat model is to some extent airline-independent. Taking Sep11 as an example, the attackers only had to compromise a given number of aircraft at certain times and places; if Southwest airplanes were easy to compromise and El Al ones difficult, they would simply attack Southwest. So against any threats of this sort the weakest security is again the dominant factor.

Paeniteo May 24, 2006 2:43 AM

@Gaius Obvious:

That’s because El Al screeens out
terrorists, while the TSA screens out
weapons. TSA would not mind a
weaponless terrorist aboard

You have not yet heard about the no-fly lists, have you?

dlg May 24, 2006 3:08 AM

@Paeniteo:

No-fly lists keep more senators off planes than terrorists. No-fly lists are about keeping a set of names from flying, real terrorists will not be on those lists, unless there is an unfortunate naming coincidence.

Those terrorists that have their name on the list are not the ones that are a problem for security. Since their names are known, they might do planning or organize funds, but no terrorist mastermind would consider putting them on an actual “mission”.

Paeniteo May 24, 2006 4:33 AM

I fully agree with you there, dlg, and there are many more arguments as to why these lists are practically useless.

Still, those lists contradict the assumption that “TSA would not mind a weaponless terrorist aboard” made by Gaius.
Once you are on the list, it doesn’t matter whether you are armed or not: you won’t fly that day (and, unless you have enough authority to get your name cleared, any other day…).

John Moore May 24, 2006 5:12 AM

What is sad here is that people forget that aiplanes are passe’. Passengers know the consequences if flight crews are removed from the controls by hijackers, so passengers will not tolerate hijackings any more. If I am to die, then the least I can do is make sure I die trying to thwart the hijacker’s plan. Denying entry to the cockpits are one way to ensure hijackers can’t alter the flight path of the aircraft. The passengers killing or subduing them is another. Therefore, our security should take that into account, but it treats us as both victim and perpetrator. Screenings are supposed to sift the malicious from the innocent. Too often they appear to be a screen for inept and sloppy security procedures of the TSA and other government entities.

Dale May 24, 2006 6:46 AM

I applaud them for there single minded focus on airline/airport security.They do seem to understand security and implement it better than any other organisation in the world.

It would be very interesting to see stats comparing the safety of there flights versus the rest of the world. Would the long term costs of a security system such as theres be offset with items such as lower insurance costs?

arl May 24, 2006 7:21 AM

The idea that El Al has a bigger risk than a US airline is silly. While a number of groups have a lot of dislike for anything from Israel, there is at least as many that dislike anything from the US.

To date, no El Al planes have been used to hit skyscrapers or other large population targets. Hijacking and terrorist attacks are just as real for the rest of the world.

mdf May 24, 2006 7:46 AM

“That’s because El Al screeens out terrorists, while the TSA screens out weapons.” Actually, the TSA is working to keep people with “fake ID” and “drugs” off airplanes, as well as their well known but feeble attempts at screening for weapons. If in fact El Al is allowing obvious weapons into the cabin, then all the praise given to the above is woefully misplaced: Bruce Schneier has supplied ample evidence it’s trivial enough to “social engineer” yourself past any kind of interview, lie detector, etc.

Rounin May 24, 2006 8:07 AM

This is like comparing apples to oranges for reasons that should be obvious to any normal thinking person.

Christopher Davis May 24, 2006 8:20 AM

mdf: On international flights, the airlines will happily sell you a large, heavy, liquid-filled glass club, which you can break to get sharp edges if you need them.

kai ran May 24, 2006 9:11 AM

“That’s because El Al screeens out terrorists, while the TSA screens out weapons.” Actually, the TSA is working to keep people with “fake ID” and “drugs” off airplanes, as well as their well known but feeble attempts at screening for weapons. If in fact El Al is allowing obvious weapons into the cabin, then all the praise given to the above is woefully misplaced: Bruce Schneier has supplied ample evidence it’s trivial enough to “social engineer” yourself past any kind of interview, lie detector, etc.

Hmmm,
Just a side note – It takes training or gadgets to lie to a lie detector. The latter is detectable (possibly) whereas the first just isn’t that common (and persumably dosen’t work on retina based lie detectors).
As for security it is worthwhile to mention that usually El-Al flies at least 2 undercover armed\unarmed security guards on their planes (and sometimes more). These men are usually highly trained ex-soldiers (a lot of them from the Israeli special forces) and had gone through a very specific El-Al training program and can subdue most wrongdoers unarmed. I’d like to also mention access to the cockpit is completely restricted during the flight in El-Al’s planes for years and not only since 9/11.

The way I understand it – El-Al’s threat model says let the guards (visible and undercover) and crew (also trained to fight terrorists) deal with any problematic passenger trying to make a mess unarmed or at least not bearing any firearms. As for firearms, explosives and such – these should be screened ahead on the ground with the best possible equipment. I feel safe flying with El-Al which is one of the airlines with least number of security indcidents that actually occured.

Dale May 24, 2006 9:12 AM

“Bruce Schneier has supplied ample evidence it’s trivial enough to “social engineer” yourself past any kind of interview, lie detector, etc.”

You have obviously not gone through the screening process that El Al uses. It would not be a “trivial” process to beat them as one of the first posts mentions.

“I’ve gone through El Al security at Newark Airport, and to say they’re thorough is an understatement. I was asked so many detailed questions about the purpose of my trip that I began to wonder if it was a cover for industrial espionage (this was a business trip).”

Anonymous May 24, 2006 10:21 AM

One advantage that El Al has amounts to the ease of cultural profiling. It is hard to fool a native Israeli about your background. Even a Jewish American growing up in the orthodox community is likely to be identified as such within a few words.

The result is that they have lots more of time to spend on the people that they aren’t sure of. It isn’t clear that this would work so well in this melting pot of cultures that we have in America.

mdf May 24, 2006 10:58 AM

“It takes training or gadgets to lie to a lie detector.”

The core principle of any lie detector is subject belief that the lie detector actually works. All the necessary “training” involves educating the potential subjects that such devices simply do not work, and even better, you can turn the device onto your adversary to add strength to your lie. Curiously, the most effective liars require almost no training whatsoever! Many (famous) cases here. Read:

http://www.antipolygraph.org/

Even if this was not true, and that extensive training was required to “beat” a lie detector (however implemented), then I find it odd that this argument can mentioned in the same posting that mentions “ex military” “security guards” which can “subdue any problematic passenger unarmed”. Surely, one would think, any would-be terrorist that will have received the extensive training to deal with these supposedly “unarmed” guards will take the add-on courses for lie-detector-evasion as well?

Basically, what logic is there in allowing people to carry weapons — knives, etc, which they have likely trained with — into the cabin based on the results of some glorified lie detector? What is the purpose of compounding a failure (should one occur)? Why make the job of the on-board guards more difficult? If the fact airlines still serve wine in glass bottles is true, does this really mean we should just close our eyes to knives, box cutters, and camera monopods — or does it suggest that wine bottles aren’t a good idea in an airplane cabin? If the new cockpit doors can withstand an oxy-acetylene attack for 6 hours, does this mean we can permit tanks in the cabin that can hold up to 6 hours – epsilon, or would it be more sensible to forbid any amount?

Dale May 24, 2006 11:04 AM

If you have ever gone through the El Al Triple screening system you would not be talking about how easy it is to Social Engineer you way past them.

“Bruce Schneier has supplied ample evidence it’s trivial enough to “social engineer” yourself past any kind of interview, lie detector, etc.”

The people at El Al are highly trained and incredibly good at what they do.

“I’ve gone through El Al security at Newark Airport, and to say they’re thorough is an understatement. I was asked so many detailed questions about the purpose of my trip that I began to wonder if it was a cover for industrial espionage (this was a business trip).”

mdf May 24, 2006 11:36 AM

“The people at El Al are highly trained and incredibly good at what they do.”

You quote Phil Karn in this discussion, stating he was asked “detailed questions”. No doubt he provided “detailed answers” … as would the social engineer in this case, no? And for all you know, maybe Karn was social engineering his way onto the plane. After all, as he implies, he had Qualcomm(?) IP to protect.

So your faith in these meat-based lie-detectors is touching, and perhaps even based on some connection to reality. However, to simply let people waltz onto the plane with weapons after “passing” the test is just plain stupid (for reasons given). But hey, if true, it’s their airline and not mine…

grayputer May 24, 2006 12:32 PM

” However, to simply let people waltz onto the plane with weapons after “passing” the test is just plain stupid (for reasons given). ”

It is equally stupid to take away someone’s 4″ knife before boarding and then hand them an 8″ knife.

Look at the threat model.

On an international flight, you are not allowed a 3″ nail clipper. But after you board, I’ll supply an 8″ beer/wine bottle that you can smash and have a 6″ ‘knife’.

If you will supply a ‘knife’ of size X on the flight, why restrict knives of size < X.

I have not flown El Al but I doubt you can walk on carrying a 3 foot sword or a firearm. The fact that you can walk on carrying a 3″ knife is not very worrying given the medical kits, oxygen cylinders, beer/wine bottles, and assorted other available ‘weapons grade’ items.

Till May 24, 2006 12:49 PM

El Al sure takes extraordinary security measures. In Frankfurt, Germany, I’ve seen one of their planes at the gate, at safe distance from other planes, and surrounded by 4-8 federal police officers with assault rifles. Closeby was their ride, an armored personnel carrier.

Mr.Logic May 24, 2006 2:19 PM

The idea that El Al has a bigger risk
than a US airline is silly.

To date, no El Al planes have been
used to hit skyscrapers or other large
population targets. Hijacking and

Have you even turned on a TV in the past decade? El Al has more of a reason to screen than any other airline on the planet. Suicide bombers are so common in Isreal that they don’t make the news anymore.

Because El Al exists, terrorist are forced to go for “soft” targets like night clubs and market places.

mdf May 24, 2006 3:11 PM

“It is equally stupid to take away someone’s 4″ knife before boarding and then hand them an 8″ knife.”

Like I said above, if this is true, it means we ask why the airplane is using glass containers for this purpose(*) … not permit a 4″ sharpened metal edge to everyone we supposedly trust. It’s just plain silly to ignore the fact that given the choice between a broken beer bottle and an keen metal edge, an evil-doer will greatly desire the latter for simple performance reasons.

Once again: if the pre-screening lie-detector fails, why on earth should one just compound the failure?

(*) Especially since safer alternatives exist and are probably less expensive than glass.

MathFox May 25, 2006 8:04 AM

I think most people underestimate the time that someone will fight back after being stabbed with a knife. (and the ferociousness of their fight.) There are few places where a single well-aimed application of a big enough knife may cause unconciousness in a few seconds by stopping blood flow to the brain. Problem for the attacker is that a pocket knife requires at least two hits, one for each artery in the neck. That’s a reason to keep bigger knives off planes (and off the streets).

A person trained in unarmed combat has a decent chance to subdue an attacker that’s armed with a small knife; he might receive a few non-fatal stabs that can be provisionally bound aboard the plane… no fun, but a managable situation.
N.B. having terrorists aboard allready means a “risk of life” situation.

John May 25, 2006 10:54 AM

Where’s Bruce’s obligatory “The Security Risk of Special Cases”? I can understand if El Al wants to add a layer on top of the TSA’s security–but to replace it with its own?

Now, I’m not doubting that El Al has both the incentive and skills to do a thorough job of securing its own airline–and perhaps we need to encourage other airlines to do the same. But the security risk I’m seeing here is the issue where, immediately after 9/11, 142 Saudis (including members of the Bin Laden family) were allowed to leave the US. Having El Al manage its own security may allow exceptions of its own that may be contrary to TSA’s security goals.

But–I’m guessing that this is moot anyway since the President allowed the 9/11 exceptions in the first place.

Tommy Weisenburg March 11, 2007 12:49 PM

Just wondering how long it takes to go through EL AL’s entire screening process from start to finish. Does a single guy like me, dark skinned by the way, and i’ve been told i look arabic, would this mean I would be singled out? on american airlines, i am always pulled to the side, at great inconvenience, seveal times as i was on the boarding line, losing my spot and then scrambling to find a place for my carry-on cause all the spaces where used. they’ve asked me to take off my jacket off, shoes, basebal hat, and they scanned me again.

raymond June 19, 2007 11:49 AM

People in the united states are too worried about their civil liberties being violated, therefore EL AL style security wont be accepted even if TSA did implement it.

LY July 1, 2007 11:25 AM

Tommy, El Al security is based on profiling a lot of factors are being taken in to consideration your age, traveling status, nationality, ethnicity, purpose of travel, and many other tiny details. These factors are being gathered from the interview, and other tricks…. The color of your skin is the last thing that security agent will care about.

rez August 27, 2007 10:44 PM

on 15th of august 2007 i had a flight from london to tel aviv with elal,elal security officers stoped me for 2 hours,asking too many questions,checking my stuff one by one and they made me undress and checked all my body and when i complaint they calld armed police for me and told me if you are not happy u can choose another flight , as simple as that,they said you are not allowed to by anything from heatrow duty free and at the last step when i had my boarding pass they stoped me again and made me naked again for body searching.that was realy humilation and far away from human being,do not choose this air line even if you have to pay hundereds more

Mhmd September 26, 2007 9:34 AM

ElAl doesn’t mind a swiss army knife because there’s very little you can do with one to take control of an El Al flight.

El Al aircraft have fewer seats because they not only have reinforced flight deck doors and armed security officers, but they have an additional reinforced room with 2 additional armed security officers before the door to the flight deck.

Many airlines have carving knives in business and first class galleys – considerably bigger than a swiss army knife.

Richard Reed (shoe bomber) got on an El Al flight.

People in the US will give up their civil liberties if the threat level goes up to a slightly darker shade of yellow. How many people complain about the USA PATRIOT Act?

Flyer December 18, 2007 3:21 AM

With Regards to El Al, what is the policy with letting staff on the ground carry weapons? Are these people EL Al Employees or Israeli Security, ie the LA Shooting?

Bill May 7, 2009 4:39 PM

El Al has a very good reason for not trusting the TSA. When you leave security to any kind of bureaucratic organization, especially a federal government, it’s only a matter of time before things go downhill from there. You are dealing with bureaucrats who’s first and only concern are their careers. They cannot dare to pretend that they have the expertise and experience of El Al’s security.

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