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Model for air travel security may be El Al

(CNN) -- The Federal Aviation Administration is considering measures that would dramatically increase security aboard U.S. airliners in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

CNN's Miles O'Brien has more on El Al Israel Airlines and the extra security measures the carrier takes (September 26)

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Among the proposals are allowing pilots to have handguns in the cockpit and placing armed air marshals aboard every airliner.

Such measures are not unlike the standard operation procedures El Al, the Israeli airline, has used for decades.

El Al receives threats daily, yet it has not had a terrorist incident in more than 30 years, according to David Hermesh, El Al's president.

"Unfortunately, the system we put in place was not because we wanted to, but because we had to because of our situation, and the threats we get," said Hermesh.

El Al attributes its record of safe travel to its tough security measures.

"If you're a passenger on El Al, most likely you will be observed from the minute that you left your car or you have been dropped off ... and then you will have met the security agent before you go to check in to your flight," said Issy Boim, president of Air Security International.

When El Al passengers arrive at Israel's Ben Gurion airport or any other airport that services the airline, they undergo an extensive interview by trained security personnel.

They are asked several questions, such as:

-- Who paid for your ticket?

-- What is the purpose of your travels?

-- Did anybody have access to your bags before you arrived to the airport?

-- When did you book this flight?

During the interrogation, ticket holders are also psychologically evaluated. Their entire makeup is judged by tone of voice, mood and body language.

The information is sent by computer to international law enforcement agencies, such as Interpol or Scotland Yard, for instant evaluation.

If there are doubts, the passenger is not allowed on the plane.

Security experts said El Al Airlines leaves absolutely nothing to chance.

In the United States, cleaning and maintenance crews are allowed to move freely around aircraft, sometimes without supervision, conditions open to the threat of an "inside job," experts said.

By contrast, El Al planes are heavily guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even during cleaning and maintenance.

All El Al pilots are veterans of the Israeli air force and are trained in handling weapons and in hand-to-hand combat.

They do not, however, carry guns in the cockpit.

The cockpit has bulletproof doors activated by a keypad from inside the cockpit.

"Remember, we are dealing with sophisticated enemy," said Issac Yeffet, former head of security for El Al.

"This group who hijacked the four aircraft [on September 11], they had to go many times through the airport, learn the airport, to learn the terminal, to learn the check in, to learn the sky cab, to learn the security checkpoint, even to learn some of the FAA regulations," Yeffet said.

At least two undercover air marshals are on board every El Al flight. They sit among the passengers. They dress in plain clothes. They are armed and licensed to shoot and kill.

Most of EL Al passengers expect such security, given the threat of terrorist activity against Israeli interests.

Industry observers said they believe such measures need to become the standard in the United States, and Hermesh said he is willing to share El Al's security techniques with the FAA and U.S. carriers.

The question is whether such measures are realistic for an airline industry as large as America's, given the cost to implement them and the inconvenience they would add to air travel.

El Al, after all, has only 34 planes and carries 3 million passengers a year. In the United States, there are 25 carriers with as many as 7,000 planes in the air at peak times.

U.S. airlines handle as many passengers in two days as El Al does in an entire year, according to estimates.

While passengers may have a harder time adjusting to measures some call "paranoid," Israeli officials insisted it is better to be safe than sorry.

"The solution for the future is to integrate ... dictate security measures for all the airports in the world," said Boim. "Terrorists will understand they cannot choose aviation to fight with it against our life."

-- CNN's Miles O'Brien contributed to this report.


• El Al Israel Airlines
• Federal Aviation Administration

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