For weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, there was no shortage of advice on how ravaged U.S. airlines could remake themselves in the image of El Al, Israel's national airline and the gold standard for aviation security. Thanks to stringent security checks, frequent passenger grillings, and unabashed profiling, El Al has not had a terrorist hijacking since 1968.
Today, daily headlines warn of new threats to American passenger planes. On Aug. 11, the Homeland Security Dept. cautioned U.S. carriers that al Qaeda may attempt suicide hijackings over the next few months. And on Aug. 13, the FBI announced it had apprehended a man trying to sell a shoulder-fired missile to an agency informant, who said he wanted to down a commercial jetliner. The threat is rising, not receding. Two years after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, are U.S. carriers as prepared as El Al to deal with the terrorist threat?
U.S. airports are certainly more secure. But security experts warn they're not yet secure enough to prevent another attack. The reason: The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has focused on reactive countermeasures, rather than strategic deterrence and risk management.
The TSA insists American aviation security is now unparalleled. "The extraordinary amount of money that has been spent on screeners, technology, and other procedures has been done in a way that addresses the American aviation industry," says TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield. "At any given airport, checkpoint, or baggage-screening station, we welcome any comparisons."
Fair enough -- it's hard to make an official comparison, since El Al doesn't disclose its security procedures. But former insiders and security experts outlined four pillars of El Al's approach and how TSA procedures match up. The conclusion: There are still key differences:
Staff Hiring and Training. Since its inception, the TSA has hired 55,000 security screeners for America's 424 airports. (Today, the total number is down to 49,000 because of TSA budget cuts.) The rush strained what should have been strict hiring procedures. According to the TSA, about 22,000 employees continue to work without background checks. On June 3, TSA chief, Admiral James Loy, told a House subcommittee that as of May 31, the TSA had terminated 1,208 screeners, who were found unsuitable for service after thorough investigation. At New York's JFK International airport alone, 50 security screeners were found to have criminal records. El Al faces no such personnel headaches.
Once hired, U.S. and El Al security receive extensive training. The TSA mandates 104 hours of training -- 44 in the classroom and 60 on the job -- learning to work the various machines, including electronic-detection equipment, X-ray machines, and hand-wands. At El Al, screeners are trained not only in the use of technology but to ask questions that might unmask a terrorist.
Isaac Yeffet, who served as director of global security at El Al from 1978 to 1984 and is now president of New York-based Yeffet Security Consultants, likes to tell the story of a terrorist plot uncovered in the early 1980s. Islamic terrorists befriended a German man recently released from jail and asked him if he would like to make some money smuggling drugs to Israel. The group flew to Zurich, where they bought him a ticket to Tel Aviv. Upon arrival at the airport, El Al screeners scanned his luggage and found nothing unusual. However, when they asked the man why he bought his ticket in Switzerland rather than his home city in Germany, he didn't have an answer. A hand search followed. Guards didn't find drugs, but they discover nearly 10 pounds of explosives. Knowing enough to ask that key question stopped a terrorist action.
On the job, U.S. and El Al security personnel are constantly tested to ensure that no weapon or terrorist slips through. In both countries, undercover teams try to devise ways to slip through the security net. The TSA has even designed software that randomly projects images of bombs, knives, and guns onto the electric readouts of devices such as X-ray machines to make sure that screeners stay alert. "Testing our own system is the best way strengthen the system and cover any possible weaknesses," says Hatfield.
In Israel, almost nothing slips through, Yeffet claims. And if it does, screeners are fired on the spot. The TSA wouldn't comment on its hiring-and-firing policies. But Yeffet says TSA figures revealed that in 2002, U.S. screeners failed to identify 70% of knives and 60% of false explosives put on the X-Ray belt by testers. "Routine is the enemy of good security," says Yeffet. "The day you think nothing will happen, something will."
Locked Cockpit Doors. On El Al flights, bulletproof cockpit doors remain locked from before boarding until the last passenger has disembarked. It's a simple requirement that ensures no terrorist can gain access to the controls.
The TSA says U.S. airlines were required to keep cockpit doors locked throughout flights long before September 11. And since 9/11, all planes have added reinforced cockpit doors. The final layer of security is the new Federal Flight Deck Officers program, where pilots are trained and licensed to use firearms within their jurisdiction -- the cockpit. So far, the TSA has trained 44 pilots.
The guns-in-cockpits program flummoxes security experts, however. "If you reinforce the cockpit door and keep it closed, why do you need weapons on board? They could get misplaced or misused," says Andrew Thomas, author of Aviation Insecurity: The New Challenges of Air Travel (Prometheus Books, 2003). "We don't ask what new security problems could be created by implementing a new measure. That's what El Al is constantly asking itself."
Positive Passenger Bag Matching. El Al requires that no checked bag be transported on a plane if its owner doesn't board the originating or connecting flight. The practice also became a standard in Europe and Asia in the 1980s after suitcase bombs brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Air India's Flight 182 en route to London, and UTA's Flight 772 to Paris. In all three cases, the terrorists who planted those bombs weren't on board.
The TSA has embraced electronic-detection systems that screen bags for bombs and other explosives in lieu of bag-matching. As of Jan. 1, the TSA is required to match bags only if a scanning device isn't available. That worries Arnold Barnett, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management and a former chair of the Federal Aviation Administration's technical team.
Barnett argues that bag-matching deters bombers far more than electronic-detection systems by ensuring that terrorists will proceed to the gate to board. If detection devices reveal a bomb, while they're waiting, they can be quickly located and arrested. Without bag-matching, more than likely they will already have left the airport -- free to try again another day.
Cargo Security. After September 11, all U.S. mail over 1 pound was banned from passenger planes. The rule meant an annual revenue loss of $1 billion to $2 billion to struggling U.S. carriers. To help improve the airlines' fortunes, TSA is now permitting heavier packages to be carried on passenger planes after it has been sniffed by trained K-9 teams.
Sniffer dogs are considered effective detectors, but MIT's Barnett worries about the opportunities it affords terrorists: All a terrorist has to do is go to a post office and turn in a package of explosives with a fake destination and return address, he figures. No I.D. required. If a dog detects it at the airport, the terrorist simply shows up the next day at another post office with a new package. Says Barnett: "It turns flying into Russian roulette."
In contrast, El Al uses sophisticated detection machines to search for liquid explosives. It also places all cargo in decompression chambers before flight to uncover explosives that might be detonated by altitude-sensitive triggers.
TSA backers argue that comparing El Al and U.S. security procedures is specious and unreasonable. El Al runs about 40 flights a day, vs. 35,000 U.S. domestic and international flights. And even TSA critics admit that if U.S. aviation security was as good as El Al, it would only drive wily terrorists to find other ways. In Israel, impenetrable airline security has resulted in suicide bombers who blow themselves up on buses and in pizza parlors.
Still, as Congress contemplates spending $7 billion to $10 billion on equipping pasenger planes with antimissile protections -- a reaction to the news of the FBI's successful sting -- security experts wonder if yet another reactive measure will make U.S. passengers safer. "The TSA needs to think more strategically," says Thomas. That's the El Al way. It should also be the American one.
By Jane Black in New York