Coming back from a trip to Israel reminded me about what it used to be like to commute to and from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the 90s when I was young. There’s lot of stuff about sur and sousveillance and much digital ink has been spilt on the subject of security and fear, but airport interactions in 2008 either make you feel safe, afraid, frustrated or bored. From the long cues at Heathrow where you really feel you are wasting your time and might never see your luggage again, to the other end of the spectrum, embodied by my experience with El Al.
The whole thing started because I was late. The truth is I hate flying long-haul as I get completely bored and usually drive Matt insane after a few hours. Living and traveling around Europe, I never usually have to deal with that particular issue as most flight last under 2 hours. A glorified bus.
After a number of poor timing and transportation decisions around London, I showed up at the El Al counter an hour before the flight. I immediately knew I was in trouble as the young assistants (one seemed to be about 19) started questioning me quite thouroughly: “Where are you going in Israel”, “Who do you know there”, “How long have you known them”, “Where did you study”, “What do you do”. This didnt feel like anything you’d get out of the Ryanair staff. The young women (there were 3 of them at that point) were looking at me quite intently as if they had already made up their mind that I was a danger to their airline and by extention, their country. There was absolutely no agressive behaviour, the tone of voice was not raised, but the suspicion lay under the surface. They then proceeded to put my luggage (I hadn’t checked in at that point you must remember) through an x-ray machine larger than your average kitchen. Something in my laptop bag disturbed one of the young women and she asked for it to be scanned at least 5 other times. My check-in luggage was then carefully put on a table, as one of the other young women proceeded to ask me more questions about where I had lived and tell me a bit about her own travel, opened, all carefully packed items removed one by one, inspected and swabbed for explosives.
I settled into a state I can only describe as submissive as my future clearly lay in their hands.
They then proceeded to tell me that my hand luggage would be waiting for me at the gate (this implied they didnt want me to add anything to it before I got into the plane) and that I had to get to the gate as fast as possible (ie “run Alex run”) because the flight was leaving soon. So with little other than my passport, boarding pass and iPod, I sprinted through El Al’s dedicated security line guarded by a policeman (soldier?) holding a machine gun.
I ran like my life depended on it across the terminal only to get to the gate and have to go through body search and x-ray all over again. At that point it was clear the flight had been delayed, so panting and coughing, I relaxed at last.
I guess at the time I booked my tickets, I had wanted to make it a more authentic experience and never thought I would get in the plane with respect for a country and a company I had never encountered before. Safety and security at it’s most literal level.