Israeli airline attracts security-minded fliers

Terrorism: El Al bases its efforts on training workers to ask the right questions.

Terrorism Strikes America

Business Impact

September 22, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Its ticket prices are the highest and its security hurdles the most time-consuming.

Yet while other airlines flew half-empty planes and struggled for survival this week, Israel's El Al thrived, filling its jumbo jets and adding flights to handle the overflow.

Never mind that terrorists are more likely to target the airline than any other in the world, as a symbol of Israel. El Al's security system is the gold standard.

As U.S. officials looked to it this week as a possible model for the future, travelers scrambled to cancel their tickets on such venerable airlines as British Airways, and flocked to El Al.

"Sixty [percent] to 70 percent of the people with bookings have called to find out whether it's possible to change to El Al," said David Broth, owner of Caves Travel in Pikesville. Some of his customers are even driving instead of flying to New York to catch their planes.

"People are more afraid to fly from Baltimore to New York than they are to fly to Tel Aviv," he said.

Isaac Neger, of Sabra Tours, is the largest seller of El Al tickets in the region. He said the $300 price difference for a ticket appears to have become irrelevant.

"El Al may cost a little bit more, but it's the best security in the world," he said. For the next few days, he said, El Al flights are completely booked. And he doubts it will stop there.

"We are trying to buy blocks of seats on El Al to protect our clientele for the coming year," Neger said.

What makes this airline so different?

To begin with, El Al uses more expensive and sophisticated technology than other airlines - foreign or domestic - to screen passengers and baggage.

But the critical distinction between El Al and every other airline is a work force trained to be suspicious, said Isaac Yeffet, the airline's former head of security.

If the United States does nothing else, it can make strides in safety fast by copying one El Al practice: install a new layer of security officers with at least a week's training in how to question passengers. Yeffet, a security consultant in New York City, believes that could be accomplished within three months. He ran the airline's security from 1978 to 1984, but remains familiar with its techniques.

"If you don't know how to ask somebody questions, nothing else matters," he said.

Such passenger interrogations are the linchpin at El Al. They have foiled hijacking and bombing attempts by passengers who passed undetected through scanners and Interpol computer checks.

Take the German traveler whose suitcase contained a bomb.

Befriended months earlier by a group of men who lavishly wined and dined him, he agreed to transport a package he thought contained drugs. He didn't know his newfound friends were terrorists or that the package contained explosives, Yeffet said.

All went smoothly until El Al officers questioned why he'd purchased his ticket in Switzerland instead of Germany. He faltered. They searched his bags and found the explosives.

A similar incident was averted when a pregnant British woman tried to board an El Al flight. She thought her new boyfriend was sending her to Israel to meet his family. But El Al security questioned why he'd given her only $50 for a two-week hotel stay.

"Simple questions, simple answers, that's what gives us the red lights," said Yeffet.

Passengers describe the El Al experience as markedly different from beginning to end.

Its customers have long known to arrive two hours before flights to accommodate security checks. Armed guards are stationed in and outside of El Al terminals, and only ticketed passengers are permitted to enter. Every passenger's name is checked against an international list of criminals. Bags receive color-coded stamps signaling each phase of security that has been cleared. Those that are physically searched may be gone through item by item. Every flight is accompanied by at least one armed officer. The cockpit is protected by a set of double doors. If someone tries to break down the first, he will probably be killed before reaching the second.

"It's really extraordinary," said Judah Lifschitz, a Washington lawyer who has flown to Tel Aviv on El Al several times in recent years. Last week, he canceled two Air Canada tickets for a trip to Israel with his daughter in November, and booked seats on El Al instead.

"Frankly, we switched to El Al because the security's better," he said. "If things became more stable and there was a general comfort with the level of security, I wouldn't think twice about who I was flying on."

Behind the scenes, El Al charts a vastly different course as well, constantly testing its security.

Yeffet said he put the system through its paces hundreds of times a day, a practice that continues. His people constantly tried to sneak through weapons and fake bombs. He sent through undercover officers carrying questionable paperwork. And he booked tickets in the names of terrorists.

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