Joel Mowbray

It just wasn't my day for smooth traveling—not what I was hoping for when I had to fly nearly halfway around the world.

  Flying El Al—Israel’s official airline—is an unparalleled experience.  Everyone is subjected to what other airlines consider "strict" scrutiny—and some lucky travelers really go through the wringer.  Count me as one of the “lucky” ones.

  Going through El Al’s security, it is easy to see why it is the safest airline on earth.  You probably couldn’t sneak a toothpick past their attention.  But where their system excels is in the personal touch.  (And no, don’t snicker—I don’t mean it like that.)

  Every would-be passenger has to “chat” with an El Al security officer—someone who actually lives up to that title, unlike many American counterparts—as a primary component of the screening process.  By talking to people in a natural setting, the highly-trained El Al officials are better able to smoke out those who are excessively nervous—as well as those who just seem a little “off.”

  Because I wanted an emergency exit-row seat, I arrived at JFK some five hours before the El Al flight, giving me enough time to be at the front of the line when they started check-in at 8am.  As “luck” would have it, though, El Al “randomly selected” me.

  Of course, as a young, single, non-Jew, “random” didn’t really feel that random.  Perhaps I was told that because we were in America.  Either way, I wanted to do whatever was necessary to minimize the manhandling.

  When the El Al security officer asked me if it was “ok” for her to go through my two bags, I responded with a wonderful Hebrew phrase, “ayn baya.”  I don’t speak Hebrew, but the expression sounds much more pleasant than responding “not a problem” in English.  Given my situation—telling her that it was a problem was not an option—it seemed like the best way to appear cheerfully cooperative.

  After every last item in my luggage had been carefully examined and after talking to the El Al security officer for nearly half an hour, I made my way to the ticket counter.  The emergency exit row seats had already been snatched up. 

  But as I sat with my knees lodged into the seat in front of me for the next ten hours (with the emergency exit row just behind me), I soon realized that what I went through was nothing more than a petty—yet absolutely necessary—annoyance.

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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