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Flying to Israel with EL AL: My Security Experience departing JFK Airport

I had been preparing for it. Never did I expect it to be so… I guess I should use the word thorough, but for the uninitiated, it was downright daunting.

While I wasn’t worried because I have nothing to hide, I was more anxious due to the stories my friend had been relaying me over dinner the night before.

To preface this: I am a last minute trip planner. I was aware that buying a ticket from New York to Israel only a week out might set off some warning bells. Even more so as I am neither Israeli nor Jewish. Also, I was travelling solo. I decided to book anyway because I wanted to fly El Al’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

This is my personal experience. I hope your experience is much more pleasant!

What is El Al security like at JFK?

El Al’s check-in is located near Gate 4 of JFK’s Terminal 4 – you will see a long line of desks emblazoned with their name and logo. Before you can reach the check-in desks to check your bags and collect your ticket you need to talk to one of the security personnel conducting pre-check-in checks standing at the podium before them.

When it was my turn a young(ish) pimply kid motioned me over and began to ask me questions. It wasn’t dissimilar to the questions most airlines ask at check-in – Had I packed my bag? Had it been out of my sight since I finished packing it? Do I take responsibility for everything that was inside my bag? Had I been given any gifts to give anyone? 

I must have said something wrong – or they just wanted to judge my body language – because on two occasions he went to talk to a man in a suit and a woman in airport uniform in the very corner beside the check-in desks.
I waited patiently, but couldn’t deny that as the clock ticked slowly closer to my departure time I was beginning to get anxious about missing the flight.

The young man came back and began asking me more specific questions this time. He asked if I knew Hebrew (again), if I was Jewish, and why I was travelling to Israel.

I answered as honestly as I could. Then, he asked if I went to shul (another name for a synagogue). I told him I had been a few times despite not being Jewish. Rookie error.

But why?

Because I was curious and I was invited, I thought.

Because I was invited by friends,” I answered.

He asked me the which shul.

What is the Rabbi’s name – I drew a blank. Was this something I should know after a couple of visits?

There’s a new one, there was a change recently.” (The truth).

What was the name of the last one?

I drew a blank. I knew the Cantor because he always made me laugh and was always the loudest person in the room; I knew the new Rabbi was a woman and her last name began with ‘Rosen-something’, but I couldn’t remember the older Rabbi because I only went a couple of times.

How often do you go?” He asked. When my friends invite me, or when there’s challah (the iconic – and delicious – braided bread) to be eaten.

Again, I must not have given him the answers he wanted. Soon the man in the dark suit came over.

You could tell he was trying to act casual, glancing at the people passing in the terminal and leaning over the podium casually as he flipped through my passport.

The questions began again. The same questions the other officer had asked me and more – why was I going to Israel? Was it a one-way ticket? (Thank goodness I had booked an exit ticket the night prior, just in case.) Had I ever been to the Middle East? Did I know anyone in the Middle East? Did I know anyone in Jordan? (Dammit, why did I book a connecting flight through Jordan to Qatar, the latter a country that doesn’t recognise the existence of Israel).

Why are you in New York? Who are your friends in New York? But your friend in New York is Jewish? What’s his last name? But you are not Jewish?

Where are you staying? Where are you going?

(An hour or so later when I was finally settled on my flight I wrote out all the questions I remembered that the two officers asked. There were six pages of questions. Six!)

By the time they walked back to the corner for the third time, I was a little annoyed. I knew exactly what they were doing: trying to psychologically evaluate me through my voice, mood, and body language.
What had started as fun yet slightly inconvenient was now wearing thin. I was anxious of getting a full body search was peaking, despite having nothing to hide. At the rate I was going, I was going to miss my flight.

Finally, the dark-suited man came back placing a sticker inside my passport and another on the cover. A sticker denoting my threat level.

Read this article to learn more about Israeli threat levels.

I had 25-minutes to clear customs and get to the gate or I was going to miss my flight. I told the lady at check-in and things moved into action. I’ll give El Al one thing: when push comes to shove, they will make sure you get to your gate.

An airport staff member came over. He grabbed one of my carry-on bags and we were off; cutting security lines and racing through the airport.

When we were in an elevator I made a joke about El Al’s security process. He told me that they are considered the ‘troublesome’ airline by the airport due to their stringent procedures.

When I got to the gate the airport staff member gave my ticket to a El Al uniformed staff member. “Wait here,” I was told.

About 15-seconds later I was picking up my bags and following a black-suited El Al staff member through a white door next to the departure gate with a nameplate reading ‘El Al’ on it.

When inside all my bags, including the plastic bag which housed my forgotten garlic bagel, was taken from me. I could only keep my phone(s) and wallet with me.

My great view in pre-boarding security room next to the gate.
They did have a TV with an Israeli Tourism video screening, magazines and water.

My overactive immagination was firing on all cylinders now.
“This is it,” I texted my friend. “I’m in a little white waiting room with Israeli Tourism propoganda on the TV and they’ve taken my bags. Next comes the strip search, right?

My friend laughed and told me that she hoped I was wearing clean undies. So much for support

A young male passenger in a Kippur with a backpack came out from the screening area with a passport and ticket in hand. I waited patiently.

I could hear what they were doing, and encountered a similar procedure in Amsterdam, so I am fairly certain that all they were doing is taking my bags to be hand searched, swabbed and x-rayed.

As I sipped water from the dispenser in the corner and watched the Israeli tourism video they were showing in the waiting area I began to relax. It was fine. Just stringent. I guess this was as close to the King David Lounge (the Business class lounge El Al operates) as I was going to get on this trip.

When all was swabbed and done, I was ushered back to the gate. I was the last person to board the flight.

Little did I know the exact same process was going to take place less than a month later in Amsterdam.

The female JFK staffer who walked me from the gate to the aircraft told me to be fast and to make sure the Israeli’s see me do it because “they don’t like people taking photos”.🙈

Was that a one-off experience?

Unfortunately not. I had similar experience less than a month later when I was flying El Al from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv.

I’ve written up a (very brief) overview of what happened there and some tips on how to manage El Al’s security in that post.

Click here to read the article.

Why does El Al have such strict security?

While the security at times feels… excessive… we must remember that there are reasons why.

Israel is not without its enemies

From the research, I have done, and the people I have spoken to, El Al’s stringent security is a reflection on their past and the current political climate. (Note: I am not saying Israel is unsafe. I would say you should do your own research and exercise precautions when travelling to any country.)

Israel is a country smaller than the US state of New Jersey with fewer people, but 31 countries don’t recognise the countries legitimacy, many who are neighbouring Israel (Saudia Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria).

Despite sharing borders and having the closest relationship in decades, Israel and Egypt still have a strained relationship. Jordan and Israel have had cordial diplomatic relationships since the early 1990s (though it’s a little strained at this time) and I met quite a few Jordanians who study in Israel while I was staying in Jerusalem.

A menorah made from rocket shells fired at Israel sits atop a Yeshiva near the Gaza Strip.

Israel is a country technically at war

Israel is currently at war with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, the latter a group considered a terrorist organisation by most of the western world.

Oh, and then there’s Palestine… but let’s get back to talking about Israeli airlines security.

Israel goes all out to protect its people

In 2002, it was reported that El Al spends a cool $90million annually on security protocols for their airline. (Source) To put this into perspective, El Al spent $56.75 per passenger on airport security while the USA’s TSA spent $6.93. [Source] This discrepency may explain why it was reported that TSA missed 80%+ of weapons that went through checkpoints.

Israeli airport security begins the moment a ticket to Israel is purchased. They run the name of the passenger through a security database of known terrorist suspects.

All Israeli airlines advise travellers to arrive three hours before their flight. This is to conduct the above mentioned pre-security checks and thorough baggage exams of both carry-on and check-in.

As Israel still enforces mandatory military service, it’s highly likely that the Israeli cabin crew serving you are former Israeli soldiers.

In fact, one friend who dated a former El Al crew member told me that their partner had told them that in the event of an emergency only the Israeli crew members are allowed to operate the emergency evacuation orders.

From what I have read and been told by Israelis, all El Al pilots are former air force pilots. When I asked some guys on my Israir flight a week-or-so later about this, they explained that the reason is probably more because there’s not really a lot of places to learn to become a pilot outside of the air force. Plus, you know, the whole mandatory military service.

Like many airlines around the world, they also have two armed air marshalls onboard (which are pretty easy to spot) who are licensed to deploy their weapon fitted with bullets that won’t pierce the fuselage of the aircraft.

Oh, and did I mention that they are the only airline to have anti-missile defence systems installed?! [Source 1+ 2]

If you are travelling on an Israeli airline outside of Israel, your baggage will be kept 100% separate from every other passenger at the airport.

When you are waiting for your aircraft, you may also notice orange cones and security guards keeping watch over the plane (I saw this in person in both Istanbul and Amsterdam).

This may all seem extreme but there is a cause. Following a spate of terrorist incidents in the 1970s, including the hijacking of a jet on its way to Rome in 1968 by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, El Al put into effect strict security measures across every point of the traveller’s experience. Since 1972 the airlines and airport have not suffered from any successful attacks. (Source)

As former El Al President David Hermesh said in an interview, “the system we put in place was not because we wanted to, but because we had to because of our situation, and the [daily] threats we get.” [Source]

Why haven’t other airlines adopted these security measures?

Other airlines haven’t been quick to adopt such measures for a number of reasons: they fly more routes (El Al flies fewer than 50 each day) and ethnic profiling is routine on El Al flights (non-Jews are scrutinised more closely than Jews. Foreigners, particularly those with Arabic sounding names, are more likely to be singled out for interrogation or extra security screenings).(Source)

Most airlines around the world face severe customer backlash if they tried to do the same thing.

Is El Al a safe airline?

When all is said and done, El Al is an incredibly safe airline.

That $56.75 per passenger El Al spends on airport security goes towards some of the most stringent security procedures I’ve ever been through.

While I was a little frazzled by the time I boarded the flight, I was secure in knowing it would be a safe flight and that there is only a very small chance that weapons or dangerous goods will be bought onboard.

I did get asked on Instagram why I would fly with El Al if they are considered an ‘at risk’ airline at all. Honestly? I wanted to experience them. They have heard mixed reviews in the media about their onboard passenger treatment and their new Dreamliner experience – especially on their NYC to Tel Aviv flights – throughout the years and I wanted to see if they were true.

They’re also one of the ‘forgotten’ Qantas partners. Most of the people I know redeem their Qantas frequent flyer points on Qatar, Cathay Pacific, Qantas or British Airways, yet not a lot of people talk about El Al.

In all honesty, for long-haul routes from Tel Aviv to the USA, China, or Asia, I would certainly choose El Al over competitors knowing their Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner will offer me a more secure and comfortable experience than all other competing airlines on the same routes.

On the Hong Kong route, I am torn between El Al and Cathay Pacific. They’re both great options with El Al operating Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners and Cathay Pacific flying Airbus 350s. The Business Class and Premium Cabins are virtually identical. The big difference would be service onboard and the amount of security you’d be subjected to.

Is passport control difficult on arrival to Israel?

After all the hassle in New York I had steeled myself for arrival into Israel. This is where the worst of the security is, I thought. Israel’s final line of defence.

But I had little to worry about.

Arrival in Israel was a fairly straightforward process. I was asked only two questions: “what are you doing in Israel?” and “why [are you staying] only four-days?!” (The immigration officer told me I need to come back for longer next time.)

In fact, when I returned to Tel Aviv two-weeks later flying Turkish Airlines, I wasn’t asked any questions and simply waved on through after showing my passport. This may have been because I already had an Israeli security sticker inside my passport, but I was sure I had removed it.

What is the security like departing Israel?

All of my friend’s horror stories about Israeli security seemed to happen when they departed the country, so I was even more anxious.

My taxi was waved through the first check-point a few kilometres away from the terminal after a brief glance inside at my face. At the airport, I walked straight into the departure building, the pre-check-in security ran smoothly and check-in was a breeze.

My first departure was on the Shabbat (the Jewish holy days running from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday). No Israeli carriers fly on the Shabbat so there were mainly African and Middle Eastern travellers flying. Except for bag scanning, security was a easy. Everyone seemed relaxed.

If you depart Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport there are two lines for security: one for those without bags (I managed to get through that with just a backpack no problem when I flew a few weeks later), one for those with carry-on suitcases.

If you have a carry-on suitcase be prepared. Keep your liquids separated in a separate bag. Have all your coins and electrical items ready to take out to scan separately. Yes, every electrical item and coin.

While my security experience departing Tel Aviv was fairly easy, I highly recommend you read Aaron’s security experience departing Tel Aviv.

Security was a breeze flying Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to Tel Aviv.

Do all airlines travelling to Israel have stringent security?

Over the last three-months, I have entered and exited Israel three times.

On the two occasions I chose to fly El Al, departing from New York’s JFK and Amsterdam respectively, I had a horrendous time trying to check-in and board my flight due to the security procedures.

On the occasion I flew Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to Tel Aviv, I had a little-to-no problem checking in and boarding my flight, just slightly tighter pre-boarding checks and a handbag search at the gate. I thought I was going to have a hard time at immigrations when landing at Ben Gurion Internatioanl Airport but this was the time my passport was barely looked at when passing through immigration in Tel Aviv.

My final thoughts

Look, I understand that an airline must do what it can to protect its interests and the passengers onboard. This is not me complaining. I am trying to give you – a fellow traveller – a realistic account of what happened to me and answering is El Al a safe airline.

While the stringent security measures won’t make me reconsider travelling to Israel, it does make me reconsider travelling to Israel onboard El Al.

This in its own right is a shame as after flying with them three times on two different aircraft (their Boeing 787-9 and 777) I would rate them among the top Business Class products in the world. I’d really like to try their Premium Economy cabin soon.

But I am opposed to racial profiling. Despite being a white girl, I had a tiny taste of what it must feel like for minorities and those who are religious when I was kept for extra questioning and extra security in Amsterdam a week or so later.

El Al, I’m still torn about you. It’s a love-hate kind of relationship.

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