COVID, 9/11 did nothing to change airport profiling

This September marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The event did nothing to assuage my nervousness when it comes to flying.

 An El Al plane, diverted to Liege, Belgium following the Brussels Airport attack in 2016. (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
An El Al plane, diverted to Liege, Belgium following the Brussels Airport attack in 2016.
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)

“I’m not a good flyer” is something we often hear people say. This could not be truer than in present times. Every day I learn about brave friends and family who run the gauntlet of air travel bureaucracy and flying during the pandemic. The mere thought of traveling now makes my stomach churn. I hear stories about people struggling to book flights while at the same time trying to clarify information about where to get Covid and Serology tests both in Israel and abroad.  They are also baffled by conflicting information concerning costs and travel insurance. Moreover, they also must deal with the likelihood of cancellations and delays due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic in different cities around the world.  

Once at the airport, the contemporary traveler has to navigate the queues for both check-in, security, and the additional health checks that go with it. The whole procedure is extremely stressful. Once onboard the aircraft, there is also the challenge of how to stay safe during the flight. For years medical professionals have been sharing advice about ways to keep healthy while in the air. Long before coronavirus, it was well known that aircraft cabins are great incubators for germs and bacteria which circulate in the constantly recycled air. Since Covid started last year, almost all airlines now insist that passengers keep their masks on throughout the flight, except while eating. The idea of sitting on a long-haul flight for eleven or more hours with a mask on does not appeal to me at all and yet thousands of people are doing this every week.

“It’s not so terrible,” a friend tells me. “As long as you’re wearing one that is comfortable and not too tight, you’ll be OK.”

There is a part of me that is very cynical about all the rules and regulations that abound these days. Health specialists have confirmed that wearing masks definitely protects us as does social distancing, however it is almost impossible to be socially distanced on an airplane. Many individuals, even before the vaccinations, did not wear their masks properly. They were sarcastically referred to as “chin warmers” and here in Israel, the Ministry of Health had to keep putting out health warnings such as the slogan: “Tishim achuz nidbakim derech ha’af”  – 90% are infected through the nose.

For a while, this became my own mantra and I used it regularly, at the top of my voice in stores and in the streets. By all accounts, there are still many “chin-warmer” passengers flying around these days. There are numerous accounts of how harassed flight attendants have to chase after uncooperative passengers who simply refuse to wear their masks.

But there is another aspect of air travel that seems to have been put on the back burner while we still grapple with COVID. It came to the fore when news reports from Belgium told of an alarming incident at Brussels airport. On July 8, El Al security staff reported an unidentified blue bag that was left near their check-in area.  As one who frequently travels to Brussels on business, I was a little shocked to learn that the Brussels airport authority decided to evacuate two departure halls. This lasted for three hours. They traced the owner of the bag and identified the Iranian woman passenger who was on a Qatar Airways flight to Doha. 

The flight was summoned back to Belgium in mid-air and the woman was detained for questioning. Her bag contained bottles of hand sanitizer. Later on, Israeli officials commented that given the strategically placed location of the bag near the check-in area of the Tel Aviv-bound flight, they believed that this was a deliberate Iranian operation to test Israeli security procedures. Sadly, this event is not uncommon in the murky world of espionage and terrorism. In terrorist language, such individuals are called “sleepers.” 

They usually belong to a sleeper cell, a group of operatives, spies or terrorists who infiltrate a targeted community and wait for instructions or an opportunity to act. For many years I worked as a management consultant with the British Airports Authority. I spent a great deal of time working with security teams at Heathrow and Gatwick Airport. At that time, Israel and Israeli airlines in particular, were the envy of most international airport operators. Heathrow and Gatwick airports were no exception. I remember once being called into a meeting with some of the Airport Security senior managers who asked me what the secret was behind El Al’s incredibly successful security operation. It was hard to explain to them that amongst other things, El Al deployed the politically incorrect system of “passenger profiling,” which subsequently became adopted by most British, American and European airports after 9/11.

 Israel 9/11 Memorial in Emek Ha’arazim (Cedar Valley) near Jerusalem created by Eliezer Weishoff. (credit: AVISHAI TEICHER/WIKIPEDIA) Israel 9/11 Memorial in Emek Ha’arazim (Cedar Valley) near Jerusalem created by Eliezer Weishoff. (credit: AVISHAI TEICHER/WIKIPEDIA)

The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, proved to be a turning point in international airport security. The al-Qaeda operation was later found to have been cunningly planned and orchestrated using sleeper cells. Not long before the attack, in May 2001, I was on my way to New York to visit my wife’s family. Because of a booking mix-up, we ended up flying on two different airlines. I flew American Airlines and my wife flew on British Airways. On that particular afternoon flight, I had booked myself a bulkhead seat with legroom. I found myself sitting next to a Scandinavian couple who occupied the aisle and middle seats to my left. I had not managed to secure the aisle seat on my right and ended up in the middle seat. The aisle seat remained empty for quite a while, and I rather hoped that it would remain empty. Unsurprisingly, the passenger turned up. Because of my airport and security awareness experience, I was alerted to the fact that the passenger had no hand luggage. My profiling instincts kicked in. 

He was not well-dressed, he seemed nervous and agitated. He was also sweating profusely. The young thirty-something-year-old of Middle Eastern appearance sat next to me. He hauled out a small book from his pocket, opened it up and began reciting something in Arabic. I craned my neck to get a better glimpse of the book and saw that it was indeed Arabic. The Swedish fellow leaned over to me and whispered:

“Is it just us, or do you also think that this fellow looks a bit suspicious?”

By this stage I too had broken out in a cold sweat. I nodded discreetly. “I think I’ll go and have a word with the purser.” I whispered. I stood up slowly, consciously trying to hide my feelings of panic.  I walked to the back of the cabin where I approached the purser who was standing in the galley with some of the flight attendants.  I explained the situation to him. He looked at me with an expression of disdain written all over his face. I was wearing my kippah.

“I imagine as an Orthodox Jew, you often pray in public, sir.” He sneered.

“This this is different,“ I stammered.

“Forgive me sir, but for us this is not at all unusual. We see people sitting on airplanes praying all the time. Now please take your seat.”

I had no choice but to follow his orders. A part of me wanted to grab my hand luggage and leave the plane but I decided that I was probably being hysterical.  I needed to sit down and control my anxiety. When the fellow had completed his prayers, he reached for a string of Islamic prayer beads and began to fidget with them. I decided to engage him in conversation to see if my instincts and suspicions were correct. By now the crew had brought me my generous tray of kosher food.

“Where are you from?” I asked cheerily as I tugged away at the plastic wrapping.

“I’m from Libya.” He answered politely. His answer sent a chill down my spine. I could not believe that I was asking him the next question.

“What brings you to New York?”

“I am an aeronautical engineer,” he said with his thick Arabic accent. “I had to deliver some airline parts for one of our Air Libya planes that got stuck here. I’m now on my way back to Tripoli. I have a connecting flight via Heathrow.”

 By now everyone had received their food tray. He had declined the tray offered to him.

“You’re not eating?” I asked.

“No I cannot eat this food,” he answered.

I don’t know what possessed me, but I decided to offer him some of my food.

“I only eat kosher food. It is similar to Halal food.”

“I know,” he smiled.

“There’s a lot here, may I give you some of my first course?”

He graciously accepted my offer and we both settled into a period of silent munching. There was no further conversation, and I hardly noticed his departure from the aircraft when we landed at Heathrow. At the time, I had mixed feelings about the incident. On the one hand, I felt foolish for suspecting him, on the other hand, I could not rule out the possibility that his 24-hour visit to New York was not suspicious. I decided to forget about it.

Four months later, 9/11 happened. The reporting of the tragedy went on for months with all kinds of experts offering their assessment and speculation of what had happened. The speculation included many reports that al-Qaeda had used sleepers to help set up the World Trade Center hijacking and airplane attack. To my knowledge, this theory has never been proven, nevertheless, there were well-researched reports of how some of the attackers succeeded in their evil mission.  

Recently I came across this in a document issued by the US authorities: 

“The success of the September 11 plot depended on the ability of the hijackers to obtain visas and pass an immigration and customs inspection in order to enter the United States. It also depended on their ability to remain here undetected while they worked out the operational details of the attack. If they had failed on either count– entering and becoming embedded – the plot could not have been executed.”

This September marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The event did nothing to assuage my nervousness when it comes to flying and yet like thousands of others, I had no alternative but to plow on and heed the advice that I was given all those years ago by my Airport Authority Colleagues:

“Check airline security standards, check safety and accident records, never fly on airlines who do not carry out preventative maintenance….”

For me the list also included: “Always try to fly El Al.”

I have not set foot on an aircraft since January 2020. At this time, during the COVID era, despite having tempered my fear of flying, I am now waiting for the next set of obstacles to be removed. Listening to the news these days, it seems that in order to have all fears removed, I and many others will still have to wait for a considerably long period of time.