I recently spent several hours in a major California airport. Unfortunately, my time spent in the airport was for naught, since my flight was cancelled. However, in spite of my traveling woes, I was able to reflect a bit on airport security. I can’t say that I am a very frequent traveler, but I’ve probably flown through U.S. airports well over one hundred times. I’ve also had the opportunity to fly internationally several times as well. This hardly puts me in a frequent flyer category, but I’ve spent my fair share of time in airports and probably have the same frustrations as most other travelers with airport security personnel, procedures, airlines, small seats, bad food, etc.
What I want to reflect on now is the use of security personnel in U.S. airports. Here’s a comparative anecdote. In my more than one hundred trips through U.S. airports, outside of the usual procedures at security checkpoints, I’ve never once been approached or engaged by an airport security agent. I’ve never been questioned, spoken to, or greeted. In contrast, I’ve had a significantly different experience flying out of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I’ve only traveled to Israel once, and so my experience is minimal. However, my experience at Ben Gurion is also significantly different than my hundreds of experiences in U.S. airports. I traveled to Israel to participate in an archaeological excavation and to tour. After five weeks of excavating, I flew my wife out to tour the country. We spent a week visiting historic sites, eating great food, and meeting splendid people. However, because our trips were purchased at different times, we had different flights out of the country. My wife flew back to the U.S. one day before I did. I didn’t just drop my wife off at the airport. I parked the rental car, walked in with her, and waited as she made it through the ticketing and baggage check procedures. As she was going through the line, I sat on a bench facing toward the entrance and exit doors of the airport, looking out at the sky and minding my own business. In the, perhaps, twenty minutes that I sat on that bench, I was approached by plain clothes security agents at two different times. Each of these agents asked me a series of questions. Questions such as: What are you doing sitting by yourself? Why don’t you have any bags? When are you flying out? Who are you waiting for? What are you doing in Israel?
The next day, when I flew out of Israel, I was asked a very similar set of questions by uniformed agent checking my passport prior to even checking my baggage. What did I do in Israel? Who was I with? Why wasn’t I with them any longer? Etc.
According to the Ben Gurion website, in 2013, more than 13 million international passengers flew through the airport on almost 97,000 flights. The airport also served more than 760,000 domestic passengers on nearly 8,000 flights. Many U.S. airports are much busier than Ben Gurion. In 2012, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport boarded more than 45 million passengers. That’s more than three times the number of passengers that fly out of Ben Gurion. When stacked up against U.S. airports, Ben Gurion would be the twentieth busiest airport.
There can be no doubt that in many ways the security personnel at the busiest U.S. airports have a much more difficult job than do Ben Gurion airport security agents. Of course, there are many socio-political, cultural, and threat-security factors that make any comparison difficult. But in simple terms of number of passengers, U.S. airports have their work cut out for them. This means that making a comparison between the security procedures and practices at Ben Gurion and those at U.S. airports may be somewhat unfair. What works at Ben Gurion may not work in U.S. airports. The way security agents are employed at Ben Gurion may not be possible to the same extent at many U.S. airports. But then again, it may be possible.
Nevertheless, if 19 or so airports are busier than Ben Gurion, this means that hundreds of U.S. airports are comparatively busy or less busy. This means that hundreds of airports can employ the same procedures and practices. The busier airports may also be able to adapt the Israeli style of security in ways that work for them.
To keep this post short, I’ll focus on one way that U.S. airports can learn from Ben Gurion.
We can generally divide security measures into two groups: active and passive. Active security measures are, well, active. They consist of those measures that employ personnel (or security equipment) to actively seek out threats with the intention of taking the initiative and denying the threat the ability to operate effectively. Passive security measures consist of “measures taken to reduce the probability of and to minimize the effects of damage caused by hostile action without the intention of taking the initiative” (Joint Publication 1-02, p. 201). Passive security measures don’t take the initiative. They are generally stationary. They are encountered by the threat when the threat takes the initiative.
Security personnel are active forms of security, not passive. What Ben Gurion security does well is employs security agents in active ways. Both plain clothed and uniformed personnel actively seek out interactions with people in the airport to assess whether or not certain individuals are threats. Of course, much more goes into engaging potential threats than talking and questioning. Ben Gurion security agents are trained in behavioral analysis and are able to determine whether an individual is a potential threat by reading body language, autonomic cues, and by assessing various other indicators. They are also trained in effective questioning. They also, almost all, have military training and experience. Nevertheless, simply employing security agents in an active way goes a long way to inhibiting people from doing bad things at Ben Gurion airport.
From my experience, U.S. airport security personnel are employed in much more passive ways. Of course, much more goes on “behind the scenes” than travelers are aware of. However, I’ve never been approached, questioned, or engaged by any U.S. security personnel outside of the security screening process at the security checkpoint. Although I see “patrols” of uniformed security personnel and law enforcement agents walking around the airport, they don’t engage anyone, question anyone, or talk to anyone unless the person is acting in some overtly unusual manner. Mostly, these patrols simply walk around like tough guys. U.S. forces tried this in Afghanistan and Iraq with little success. Much more success was had when U.S. military patrols softened up (from the perspective of demeanor) and actually engaged the local populace.
U.S. airport security can learn from Ben Gurion by employing security personnel in active ways, both plain clothed and uniformed agents. Security agents must walk the airport, talk to travelers, question them, assess them, and engage them. They must also be trained in behavioral analysis and questioning techniques. These conversations are not casual, but direct questionings to assess what people are doing, who they are with, where they are going, etc. Ultimately, the security agent considers both the explicit answers and body language to determine a person’s intentions. For the vast majority of travelers, these conversations will reveal nothing. The vast majority of travelers are simply trying to get to their destination with as few problems as possible. However, these types of interactions will go a long way to inhibiting and catching the few terrorists or criminals that try to get through airport security and do bad things.
Waiting for people to approach security checkpoints, checking their name against a list, taking a two-second look at them, watching them from behind a desk through a security camera system, scanning them with x-ray and other imaging technology—these are all passive forms of security. No initiative is involved.
For U.S. security to be effective, it must be active. After a recent shooting at a U.S. airport, I heard a high-profile law enforcement agent state: “We can’t do anything about these types of attacks, all we can do is respond.” I think he’s wrong. Be active. Be left of bang.