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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A group of US airport authority heads this week got an inside look at the running of the Israeli airport system in the hopes of learning new ways to improve the overall security and efficiency of US airports.
The five-day trip, organized and hosted by the Foreign Ministry, included meetings with Israeli government officials and officials at Ben-Gurion International Airport, as well as meetings with Israeli high-tech companies which specialize in airport security technology.
On Wednesday, the group viewed, amongst other things, the luggage screening and sorting process and the airport's emergency response services.
"The potential for cooperation is huge," said Dana Kursh, the Foreign Ministry official who is leading the group, "Especially when it comes to homeland security, the sky is the limit."
"[The trip is] also a way for us to humbly give back to the States," she said. "Unfortunately, we have unique experience with homeland security and how to protect ourselves from terrorists."
Kursh was referring to the famously thorough procedures of Israeli airport officials. No successful hijacking has occurred on a plane leaving Ben-Gurion Airport, and no attack has taken place inside the terminal since the 1970s, though Israel and planes entering and leaving the country are prime targets for Islamic extremists.
While they lauded the achievement, the visitors noted the main difference between the two countries - Israeli security openly employs profiling, singling out passengers for stricter screening based on their appearance or ethnic group, a practice that is banned in the US.
"The definition of profiling for me has taken on a whole new meaning," said John Clark III, head of the Jacksonville Airport Authority. "It's a continuous process of security versus a one-stop shop."
Israeli experts say security requires an extensive, and at times intrusive, interrogation process. Upon reaching the departure terminal, all passengers undergo individual questioning by security officers, who probe everything from their religious beliefs to travel companions. Learning ways to maintain such a level of security while easing the experience for passengers is something the group participants said they are very interested in doing.
Compared to the nine million passengers who come through Ben-Gurion Airport each year, according to an airport spokeswoman, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, handled 46 million passengers last year said McCarran's aviation director Randall Walker.
If passengers "have to show up at the airport three hours early to fly one hour, pretty soon they're going to say, 'Why don't I just drive?'" Walker said.
"We don't fully believe that we are under direct threat of terrorism in the US," says Oakland Airport Director Steve Grossman. "9/11 was terrible, but it was one incident. The US public is not as focused on security and not as tolerant of security measures," he said.
Grossman, who last year participated in a conference between US and Israeli airport officials through the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, added that "we have to adapt the program to our culture and the needs of our society. It may be difficult to implement some of the things we've learned."
"It's important to establish a personal relationship with Israeli Airport Authority staff so that when we have questions we can call and ask," Grossman added. "This business is very small and what one airport does helps another airport - we all face similar problems."
The US airport directors' trip comes as the Foreign Ministry is sending five experts from the Herzliya-based International Institute for Counter Terrorism to different US consuls to give conferences on homeland security.