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.