And You Trust the TSA to Protect You?


My family and I flew to Israel last week on El Al, but we bought our tickets through Delta, which flew us from Reagan National to JFK. Delta let us check our luggage in D.C. for the whole trip, which surprised me, because El Al usually has its own security screening. It turned out that the bags were supposed to be screened again in New York, which no one mentioned until we were about to board the plane for Tel Aviv. At that point an El Al security guy whisked me into the bowels of the airport to identify our bags and answer questions about them. He explained that we could not get on the flight with the bags until they had been cleared by the airline. When I mentioned that the luggage had already been screened by the TSA in D.C., he laughed and said, "And you trust the TSA to protect you?" While American air travel security is just for show, he said, the Israeli version is for real.

Although he was hardly a disinterested observer, the comparison had the ring of truth. To begin with, Israeli screeners tend to be brighter and better trained than their American counterparts. Like the TSA, they scan baggage and run people through metal detectors. But much of their job involves asking passengers questions and reading their responses, including tone of voice and body language. This approach, which is in some ways more intrusive than a TSA pat-down and in other ways less so, requires skills that you can't learn in a quick pre-employment course and screeners who do more than watch monitors and wave wands. In the U.S., which has many more flights than Israel and faces a lower risk of terrorist attacks, I'm not sure whether more-professional airline security personnel would be worth the cost. But from what I've seen and read of the TSA in action, the El Al screener was right that the U.S. program is essentially cosmetic. The question is whether the appearance of security serves to deter terrorists or only to falsely reassure passengers.