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?