Checks - but No Balance

The events of September 11, 10 years ago, altered airport security beyond recognition for passengers and flight crew alike - at the expense of common sense.

Munich Airport. The curtain rises on the theater of the absurd. We, the flight crew to Tel Aviv, arrive and make our way to the plane. All of us are in uniform, of course, and with flight-crew documents. At the security check stand we put down our cellphones and our keys for screening and we are asked to go through a metal detector.

"The belt, too," insists the security checker. "But I am going to fly the plane, and apparently not to hijack it," I say with a smile, trying to appeal to his common sense. "Your shoes too, please," he replies, without a smile. And thus we go through the metal detector, barefoot and beltless.

plane over New York - Getty Images - 11092011
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Beyond the metal detector waits another severe official. "Stand here. Arms to the sides, please." He feels along my arms, goes down to my feet, grasps my legs and works his way up, in order to make sure I am not carrying a weapon under my trousers. "Turn around, please." And the process is repeated, as this time he checks to make sure I am not carrying a knife on my back. "Thank you," he says sternly and without a smile, and I am free to go to the plane. Thus, once again the hijacking of an Israeli plane by its pilots has been prevented.

All this did not happen before September 11, 2001. The hijacking and crashing of four passenger planes in the United States led to a fundamental change in passenger security checks at airports. But the terror attack also caused changes, most of them negative, in the attitude of the "security authorities" toward civil-aviation pilots everywhere in the world.

Perverted logic

During the past decade all of us pilots have been suspects. The American planes, after all, were hijacked by people who had learned to fly and therefore, by the perverted logic that has developed since then, everyone who is able to fly a plane is a potential terrorist, and so should be checked with special severity. It makes no difference that the pilot being checked, whose nail clipper has been confiscated, is sitting in a cockpit where there are "deadly weapons" immeasurably more dangerous than that nail clipper.

The events of September 11 were so traumatic that they changed the world of civil aviation beyond all recognition. At the same time, the welcome influence of common sense on the judgment of those who are in charge of passenger security has diminished.

About 20 years ago I was living in Boston. Now and then, when I wanted to fly to some other destination in the United States, I would go to Logan Airport, head straight for the counter at the boarding gate and show the ground stewards my aircrew identification card. Thus, without making a reservation in advance, and without a plane ticket, I could fly all around the country. Today, I would not be able to go straight to the boarding counter because on the way there are inspection stations where bags are screened by metal detectors and body searches are carried out.

It seems the Americans are the strictest about the new rules, sometimes to the point of losing their grip on common sense. At airports they do not deviate from security orders even when it is clear they are contrary to simple logic. The Americans, ever sensitive to human rights, avoid using the "profiling" method. The idea behind this method is identifying passengers who constitute a potential danger according to a certain profile - like age, origin, behavior and type of baggage - which makes them more suspect than others. These passengers, and only they, go through more meticulous checks, and security people ascertain who they are through questioning and searches. All the rest go through a simpler and faster check. Profiling is one of the checking methods used in Israel.

Since the Americans do not use this method, which is ostensibly discriminatory, they perform random checks, for example on one out of every seven passengers. Thus, one can see a tough female security officer carrying out a meticulous body check on an old woman who can barely walk, while the next person in line, a young man of Mediterranean appearance, will breeze right through.

It is doubtful this was the intention of Mohammed Atta and his terrorist colleagues who crashed the planes on September 11, but their action has changed civil aviation forever. For passengers, the time spent at the airport en route to a vacation often becomes a real nightmare because of the unpleasant and distressing addition of strict security checks. Showing up for a flight has to be done three hours in advance of takeoff, and the long lines are truly intolerable.

Many Israeli passengers do not understand what the fuss is about, since checks and searches were carried out at airports here even before September 2001. It has to be understood, however, that for passengers in Europe and the United States this is a tremendous change - for the worse.

Ten years ago, for example, a businessman from New York who had to fly to Boston for a meeting would come to the airport 15 minutes before takeoff, go straight to the boarding gate, pick up his boarding pass, take off within a few minutes and land within an hour in Boston. Today, he often has to show up about two hours before takeoff, go through a series of often humiliating security checks, and after finishing the meeting in Boston he has to go through the whole process again on the way back.

The ironic thing is that if American airline companies had taken terror threats more seriously 10 years ago, and had put some measures in place, all this would have been prevented, and civil aviation would have been spared the shock it experienced.

Had American Airlines and United Airlines been instructed to lock the door to the cockpit and not allow in anyone who wants to enter, the terrorists would not have been able to take control of the four planes they crashed.

It is hard to believe, but American airline companies have only recently installed fortified doors to the cockpit in their planes. And only after that did pilots begin locking these doors. Airlines abroad have begun to adopt security procedures that have been second nature to Israeli companies for the past three decades.

At international professional conferences I have learned just how profound the effect of September 11 has been on pilots' attitudes toward aviation terror threats. The relaxed attitude has disappeared, and many airlines are putting armed security people on their planes.

A decade later, it can be said that September 11, 2001, changed our professional life - for the worse.