Exploring Israel: El Al Airlines security

by Chris on May 11, 2010

Lots of questions and leave your carry on with us, please: my experience with El Al airlines’ security, en route to Israel.

I’m in Israel this week as a guest of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. We have an action-packed itinerary that takes us through Haifa, Rosh Pina, Tel Aviv, Masada and the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

I had to get here first, of course. And, true to their reputation as the most security-conscious airline out there, El Al airlines didn’t make it easy.

I showed up at JFK’s El Al ticket counter almost 4 hours before the overnight flight out, thanks to an early connection from Philly. Another writer on the trip, Reid from Reid’s Guides, was with me; we know each other vaguely from the Society of American Travel Writers.

We noticed all of the El Al agents huddled over in a corner, studying the passenger list. At precisely 8 p.m., a few broke away and headed toward our line.

My screener started easy: “Why are you going to Israel?” I’m a journalist, traveling on a press trip, I told her.

She looked at me skeptically, then over at Reid. “Are you two together” she asked.

Er, not really, I said. We’re on the same trip though.

That seemed to raise a red flag. “Where exactly in Israel are you going?” I told her and offered to pull out an itinerary. “That won’t be necessary,” she said, curtly.

The questions came faster: “Who else is in your group?” “Where you are meeting them?” “Have you been to Israel before?” “Do you speak Hebrew?” “Where will you congregate when you get there?” “What other countries have you visited recently?”

Although it was my first trip to Israel, I knew such detailed questions were common protocol at El Al. So I answered politely and as thoroughly as I could. Once I dropped off my bag for check in, I thought I was home free. Think again.

The screener led us to a cordoned-off area. “Sit here,” she said, indicating a chair. Reid and I exchanged glances. This didn’t sound good.

And it wasn’t: We were told to leave our carry-on bags, including our laptops and other electronics, at the counter until boarding, at which point an agent would personally escort us through security directly to the gate. “Take only your wallet,” she said. After some pleading on our part, we were also allowed our iPhones.

We figured that everyone in our group had run a similar gauntlet. Surprise! None of the other writers in two press trips that were gathering in El Al’s King David Lounge had their carry on bags taken away. So we spent much of our extended layover trying to figure out why we were singled out, to no avail.

When we returned, the security manager greeted us, with an air of apology. “This is you, yes?” he said, showing me a copy of my passport. “You can go get your bag.”

“Why did we have to give up our carry on bags anyway?” I blurted out

He looked embarrassed.  “You were on the wrong list.”

We were allowed to go to the gate without an escort. I scanned my luggage, fully expecting my things to be scattered. While my bag seemed intact, Reid wasn’t as lucky; he found his favorite hat squished into his bag’s tiniest compartment.

Now I’m not naive. I know why El Al needs to take such strong security measures and I respect them for devising anti-terrorism precautions that has made their airline one of the safest in the world. In the long run, a few hours without my computer is no big deal.

I just wonder who else was on that list.

Lesson learned: If you are taking El Al, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to pass through the security process. And know your itinerary before you go; the detailed questions that I received are fairly typical.

Have you traveled on El Al? What was your security experience like?

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Chinamatt May 11, 2010 at 6:19 pm

I took El Al about 5 years ago for a Birthright Israel trip. They gave our entire group the same run-down. I got off easy compared to others in the group. They asked one poor guy what Torah portion he read at his Bar Mitzvah.

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Marissa May 20, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Hah, I got the same question, AND I had to remember what my haftarah was. Thank god they didn’t ask me to actually chant anything, i would’ve been totally screwed.

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Camels & Chocolate May 11, 2010 at 6:37 pm

I went on the same Weill trip in November. I was actually surprised how EASY it was to get through. The only thing was that I was traveling with just a carry-on, and I left it in the El Al lounge as my connection from SF got in before check-in started. So when I could finally check in, I went to El Al in JFK, and they sent me all the way back to the lounge to bring my carry-on to them. Once I did–and waited in line again, it should be noted–they didn’t so much as X-ray or even look into the bag! What was the point of all of that in the first place??

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Camels & Chocolate May 11, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Also, I was with Reid in the Arctic Circle last summer! Funny how small the travel writing circles are =)

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Millie May 11, 2010 at 6:58 pm

When I went to the SATW national meeting there years ago, it was the same thing. We had gotten our tickets late, which was a flag. Those of us flying from NYC were grilled so much that a woman from the San Diego Zoo finally asked, “What is it you want to know that I’m not telling you!”
There was another security check by the gate, where we picked up our hand luggage.
We remember commenting on how young the checkers were….even then!
Then I was on a pre-convention trip to Egypt, and you can imagine! We fly EgyptAir there, with no real problems. But in Cairo, on the way back to Tel Aviv (i think it was still EgyptAir, but maybe Israelis were checking us), they took several of our group aside quizzing them, and then told the leader that those people had contradicted what she had said about the trip…..which was not true.
very interesting. but tell the truth, i’m glad they doit!!! especially now.
this was several years prior to 9/11.

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Susanna May 11, 2010 at 11:00 pm

I used to live in Israel. I speak Hebrew. My daughter lives in Israel. I travel to Israel twice a year. I’m a grandmother of five — a Jewish grandmother! — and they STILL manage to unnerve me. It’s not over, you know. Just wait until you leave!

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Chris May 11, 2010 at 11:23 pm

It’s so interesting to hear everyone’s El Al stories! It goes to show that they do mix up the questions with almost every passenger, to keep people off guard. And I’m with you, Millie – I’m glad they do it.

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soultravelers3 May 12, 2010 at 9:50 am

As much as I would like to visit Israel, I will never forget what a hassle it is getting in and out. I’ve even traveled with a Jewish boyfriend long ago that is VERY connected in Israel and even though we are not Jewish or Israeli, I had a brother who lived on a kibbutz for years. Just seeing all the armed soldiers everywhere was a shock as well when I first went long ago…although now we see that much more in many places.

Still it is understandable, but it is one of the things that makes me postpone going to Israel on our open ended world tour. Such a hassle and we travel with a child and want to see much of the Middle East while there.

Nevertheless, we will get there as I want my daughter to see Jerusalem.

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Marianne Schwab May 14, 2010 at 7:46 am

I flew to Israel many years ago on El Al and I wouldn’t fly any other airline to that country. I was traveling with a friend who’s boyfriend purchased her ticket for her as a gift. The El Al agents interviewed her, went through everything in her luggage, and did not let her get on the plane because she fit the profile of the Pan Am 103 bomber who’s boyfriend payed for her ticket and stuck explosives in her luggage. If TSA was run by El Al Security, we’d have REAL security in our airports instead of TSA’s “smoke and mirrors” that people think are protecting airline passengers. Instead, TSA seems to just find more ways to take your civil rights away when you step foot inside an airport. The new “see-you-naked” x-ray machines are just over the top. Give me El Al security agents any day of the week over TSA. They are the experts at airline security.

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rdglady May 22, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I fly El Al twice a year to Israel and I am grateful for their security. Most of the time I go through quickly but once or twice they opened and searched my luggage! I agree with Marianne, I feel much better with them than TSA who IS a joke!! I also believe your answers aren’t as important as your non-verbal behavior. –something that can’t be faked!

AS an aside–Chris–these blogs are wonderful!

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DEMOBUST November 18, 2010 at 5:21 pm

I’ve pondered Israeli’s efficient airport screening procedures for application in US airports and believe that the US airport security operations could never achieve the dedication, focus, spontaneity that are characteristic of Israel’s desire to protect the nation state at all cost. Americans don’t feel threatened enough to, nor could correctly administer the briskness of Israeli interrogation tactics.

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Anita January 18, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Eventhough El Al might be one of the safest airlines ever, they caused me so many trouble. Flight from Prague to Tel Aviv and then connecting flight to Eilat.
2 hrs long Interview in Prague, hand luggage and my luggage checked, all the stickers that it was checked… Everyone was asked, that`s true, but for like 10 min!
The officers called my boyfriend and his family who was there, he didn`t pick up and I was told “If he doesn`t pick up, you`re not going anywhere”. Finally he did. They called to my school if I really study there, I had all the documents from my hotel, my flight ticket back…The flight was late because of me. The same in Tel Aviv, and when I was checked (also my luggage) and went for check-in, the luggage was sent to be put on the plane. However I was suspicious (I am white,blond,never had problems, polite and representative, speaking English,Russian…) and even after the luggage was sent off, they wanted to check it once again!!! So that the plane was delayed – because of me, all he passengers had no problems at all.
They were amazed by my underwear in the luggage, showing it to all the queue, I had to eat my antibiotics so that they see it is no poison (they didn`t care I take it on time after 12 hours…), very much liked my shampoo Kerastase, half of it was gone after they checked it and because they closed it badly, the other half was in my clothes.
They checked my text messages, photos in laptop and the date when it was taken… I was so exhausted and felt so bad, because you can not say a word. And way back? Don`t even ask, eventhough I was going HOME!

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Chris January 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Anita – Yikes, that’s quite an ordeal! Do you have any idea why they singled you out for such scrutiny?

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MissT June 26, 2011 at 11:47 pm

I was visiting my boyfriend in Israel for the first time. I am white, non-Jewish, don’t speak Hebrew, and was traveling alone. Apparently this makes me fit the profile of a suicide bomber’s girlfriend (this is what they told me). I was the only one on the flight questioned to this extent. They asked me all of the above questions you guys have mentioned and also for my full itinerary (I had traveled around Europe for a bit and this all happened at the airport in Athens), to see the contents of my wallet, my relationship with my boyfriend and how long we had known each other, a contact phone number for him, his occupation, where he lived, how to say and spell his name about fifty times, etc. And these questions were all asked about 10 times not only by the security agent, but then also by the security manager in a separate office. They challenged almost every answer I gave and talked to me as if I were lying. They also took apart my blackberry and my laptop, made me turn it on and asked to see pictures of him. They looked through my camera and since I never set the proper date/time on it, they questioned why the pictures I recently took of Europe were dated from so long ago. They took me into a special room and used another scanner for myself and my luggage. They took everything out and would not let me travel with my hair straightener since it did not pass their security test. Who knows where it is now! I arrived in Athens 3 hours before my flight to Tel Aviv and my whole 3 hours were spent doing this security check. At the end, I was escorted by a security guard onto the flight and they pretty much took everything out of my carry on and put it in my checked bag. By the end of it, I was on the verge of tears and felt completely violated, particularly because they continually asked me personal questions about my relationship with my boyfriend that they had no business knowing. I don’t care how secure El Al is, I would rather take my chances on another airline and at least keep my dignity. I will never fly El Al again.

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Gertrude January 17, 2012 at 3:51 am

@MissT I also took an El Al flight to Athens for holiday and I was interrogated for 3 hours, strip searched for no reason. My camera was deemed a “security threat” and shipped to Tel Aviv by freight! I’m Christian, do not speak Hebrew, and from the USA. And my Swiss made chronograph watch was suspected to be some kind of terrorist device as it has a timing second hand. Ridiculous. Most likely we were interrogated in the same rooms. I also will NEVER fly EL AL again.

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Daniel September 3, 2011 at 4:19 pm

I live in Israel, fly El-Al every year usually more than once and have been for years.

The impression made here is skewed and this must be noted.
I doubt people who had a smooth and uneventful process with El-Al don’t take the time to comment on this forum.

Those who do find themselves interrogated do, and this is understandable but again must be taken into account. Most people are screened carefully but not to the point of feeling violated.

Now I know that as a citizen I naturally enjoy seeming less suspicious to the authorities however I too am asked questions and I always found this to be perfectly normal.

When flying with other companies and only being asked if I have any sharp object in my luggage, that’s when I feel things aren’t right.

Regardless of just how comfortable we are with flying as human beings, it still isn’t a natural state for us and therefor every bit of the process must be scrutinized, from the plane maintenance, pilot quality and of course security. I /want/ to be asked questions, the more the better. I want to know that they are actively and thoughtfully judging my behavior, luggage, intentions. Just because I want to know they are doing this to others as well and therefor exponentially lowering the chances of a negative incident.

Last time I went to Prague I was asked, “Why are you going to Prague” and I said, “Vacation”, then asked “Why are you smiling” and I said in Hebrew “Because i’m going to Prague, wouldn’t you?”.

Even if you find the situation to be mildly uncomfortable, make an effort to appreciate the added safety you’re “buying” by cooperating with security measures.

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K Hopkinson September 9, 2011 at 9:04 am

much like the commentor from Prague i had the trip from hell with El Al yesterday from London to Tel Aviv. I was travelling with my jewish boyfriend to Israel for the first time. I dont know what made me appear as a threat but from reading the other posts maybe it was because i was non jewish and travelling with a boyfriend i dont live with so they couldn’t ascertain a definite link between us, if anyone can shed any light on this i would be interested to know. I didnt get dragged off to a room for questioning but i did have every scrap of luggage gone through with a fine toothcomb and many of my cosmetics had leaked by the time i unpacked due to the lids not being replaced properly.

I do understand the need for security ( at one point i burst into tears and was reminded this was all done for security) and expected this process, to some degree, however i was shocked at how harsh it was. I know they know better than i do who is a threat but they could have at least been slightly more pleasant as oposed to treating me as guilty until proven innocent. For someone from a democratic country (the UK) who has never had any issues with authority their heavy handed, threatening attitude was a most unpleasant experience. I felt violated and miserable and paid £360 for the privilege. And now i am scared about what i will face on the return trip. I will never fly El Al again and i will think twice about ever visiting Israel if this is their attitude to tourists – i’ll spend my hard earned cash elsewhere.

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Leroyjabari October 4, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Never flown El-Al probably never will, not because of any stance on not flying them. There is a way to carry out any security measures respectfully and professionally. Some of the posts above reflect that that is not the way that it is carted out at times.

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