The airport, considered one of the safest in the world, has layers of security, only partially visible to the 16 million passengers who pass through every year.
No flight leaving the airport has ever been hijacked, and there has not been a terrorist attack at the airport since 1972, when three members of the Japanese Red Army killed 26 people and wounded dozens more in a shooting rampage.
The security begins in the Airport Security Operations Center, located near the airport. The small room, staffed 24/7, monitors every flight in Israeli airspace, including transit flights and nearby aircraft.
Each flight, each passenger, and each member of the flight crew are checked long before arriving in Israeli airspace. There is never a moment without pressure. An off-course aircraft or a flight without proper security clearance is flagged immediately.
Dvir Rubinshtein, manager of the operations center for Israel’s Ministry of Transportation, estimates that 10 flights a day are flagged and checked. Since Ben Gurion is Israel’s only major international airport, shutting down the airport would effectively cut off Israel from the air.
“There is, every day, a situation where we have such concerns [about a flight],” said Rubinshtein, “and we check that and verify that everything is security cleared.”
Next month, Ben Gurion airport will host visitors from 40 different countries to discuss airport security, officials say.
Interest in Israeli airport security has grown after the attacks in Brussels, the crash of MetroJet Flight 9268, and now EgyptAir Flight 804.
Ben Gurion is a relatively small airport — the airport handles about 20% of the passengers of London’s Heathrow International Airport and 15% of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which just signed a cooperation agreement with Ben Gurion.
Some of the security measures employed at the airport are not scalable to larger hubs, but “some fundamental principles and some best practices can be deployed in other parts of the world,” said aviation security expert Shalom Dolev. “It’s not a copy and paste because it’s not a situation where one size fits all.”
Critics have accused both Israel and the United States of racial profiling as part of their aviation security procedures.
Dolev says it is risk-based security. Palestinians and Arabs passing through Ben Gurion say they are more likely to be stopped, searched, and questioned. Last year, Israel’s High Court of Justice refused to ban racial profiling in a case brought by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The court did leave the door open for the group to file a case in the future.
Security expert Dolev says the Israeli tactics are risk-based security and don’t amount to “profiling.”
In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has touted its evolution from a “one-size-fits-all security screening approach to a risk-based, intelligence-driven strategy.”
But that strategy, which includes a Behavior Detection and Analysis program that the agency says is scientifically substantiated, has long been criticized by passengers, security analysts and civil liberties advocates as flawed and discriminatory.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued for records related to the program in 2015 to gauge the program’s effectiveness.
“Most of the countries are actually coming here often to see how Israel is dealing with security aviation and the threats from terror aviation,” Rubinshtein said.
In February, Israel issued a security directive to airlines flying to Israel. The directive adds security checks to each flight.
“The circles of threat are further expanding to insiders working at the airports,” said Dolev.
“Insiders that are working at resorts and may have access to the luggage of passengers, insiders that may work at airports or even in cabin crew. And last but not least, the phenomenon we are facing since the early-90s of suicide pilots.”
Asked what makes Israel different, Dolev says, “We are more flexible, more dynamic to respond to emerging threats and respond effectively.”