NEW YORK (Jul. 9)
A few yards from the El Al Israel Airlines ticketing counter at JFK Airport here, a slight young man in civilian clothes casually patrols the length of the area.
Upon closer inspection, one can see the outline of a handgun through his untucked chambray shirt.
Security procedures at El Al are “exactly the same” since the shooting at Los Angeles’ International Airport last week, said the young man, who offered only his last name, Or-Shavit.
The only difference, he said, is that there are more New York police stationed in the area — and more reporters asking questions.
The quick response by El Al attendants to force to the ground and kill Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, the lone gunman who killed two and injured three at the airline’s Los Angeles ticket counter, underscores the high caliber of El Al security, said Or-Shavit and several El Al passengers waiting to board their flights on Monday.
The Israeli airline personnel’s swift reflexes won heroic praise by Los local and national politicians, law enforcement authorities and media alike.
As a result of the July 4 attack, El Al, which has been consulting with federal aviation to improve security in the wake of the Sept. 11, has stated that it is “cooperating with American authorities who are reviewing the existing security procedures in the public areas in airports throughout the country.”
El Al spokeswoman Sheryl Stein said further details were unavailable.
Stein said there has been no decline in traffic to Israel since last week’s incident, but the number of passengers in general over the past two years, since the outbreak of the intifada and a wave of suicide attacks, has declined by 40 percent.
Now, in peak travel season, there are three flights a day from New York area airports, down from four to five flights two years ago.
If such an attack gripped any other airline, the tragedy would have been much worse, said Yaffa Yacker, a Long Island mother of two, who was headed to Israel on El Al from New York on Monday night.
El Al security people “know what to look for,” whereas other airlines aren’t experienced, she said.
Many El Al faithfuls cite proof of that fact by pointing to the 1986 incident when the airline personnel averted the likely explosion of its aircraft and deaths of the 375 passengers and crew aboard.
Through routine questioning about whether a passenger’s baggage was her own and who packed it, El Al security at London’s Heathrow Airport found a pregnant Irish passenger who was unwittingly carrying a bomb packed by her Jordanian boyfriend.
Experts say that the more general question asked by most airlines security to passengers — whether they had received something to carry on board from a person they did not know — would not have intercepted that trap.
For her part, Yacker says she also relies on her own instincts to spot suspicious activity.
“I’m Israeli,” she said, and “I’m looking.”
But she added, before the recent wave of terrorism that has struck Israel and America, “I didn’t used to look around.”
Orah Massarsky, an Israeli-born English teacher in Montclair, N.J., agreed with Yacker’s take on last week’s attack.
“El Al did the best they could” in responding, she said, standing in the ticketing line for her late Monday night flight from New York to Israel.
“I don’t know any other airline that would have acted as well,” she said.
And if there is going to be an attack, “I know their reaction will be the most professional,” the “most thought out” and the “most planned,” she said.
“It’s like going to the doctor,” said Massarsky. “You may be nervous about what’s going on,” she said. But if it’s the “best doctor, at some point,” there has to be faith.
And Israeli Na’amit Sher, 48, has faith in El Al.
It is still the “safest way to fly,” Sher said, returning home after a week’s vacation in the Pacific Northwest. “I don’t feel less safe than before.”
El Al’s Israeli passengers in particular appear to feel very safe, Or-Shavit said.
Israelis have grown accustomed to living with terror and recover from such incidents quickly, whereas Americans are still discussing the attacks of Sept. 11, he said.
As for El Al employees, they are “very proud” of their colleagues’ reaction in Los Angeles, which followed policy, Or-Shavit said.
“Employees here still think they can come safe to work.”