I’m leaving Geneva (on a Swiss International Air Lines flight operated by El Al airlines) headed to Tel Aviv. Since I’m going to be in Israel for less than a week, I’ve intentionally packed light: no checked luggage and just two carry-ons—a soft-sided roll-aboard and the backpack that holds my computer, cameras, etc.
I own a travel company, so multiple stamps for Egypt, Indonesia and Morocco have invited some extra scrutiny from security. Finally satisfied, the security officer asks me one last question: “At what hotel did you stay in Geneva?” I hadn’t. I stayed with my Moroccan friend, which I tell them. Before I know it, I am being interrogated by three different security officers in a round robin of absurd questions, glaring looks and microscopic examination of every stamp in my passport. It’s like something out of “Midnight Express.”
With 90 seconds to go before my gate closes, they inform me that I can get on the plane with nothing, and my hand luggage will stay behind for inspection… for three hours… and arrive on a cargo shipment tomorrow. I am still trying to wedge my laptop between underwear and T-shirts in my roll-aboard when the Swiss ground steward says, “I’m sorry, sir, the flight door has closed.”
My head snaps up, ready to give the El Al interrogators a piece of my mind, but like my flight, they’re already gone.
SWISS politely informs me that my existing ticket will no longer be honored. I have to buy a new one-way ticket on the spot. I protest vehemently, but it does no good. As far as SWISS is concerned, the intransigence of the El Al security team has nothing to do with them. From SWISS’ perspective I missed my flight. Period. And that’s my problem, not theirs. I stand for almost a full hour while the SWISS rep pounds furiously on her keyboard—as if she’s redesigning key systems of the new Boeing Dreamliner, or maybe working on a new nanoparticle-based drug delivery system. Whatever it is, it takes forever. And costs me nearly $400 in the process.
What should have been a four-hour non-stop flight becomes a newly purchased one-way ticket, including NINE more hours waiting in the Geneva airport, then an extra leg to Zurich before leaving for Tel Aviv. Rather than arriving at 4 pm, I will now land in Tel Aviv at 4 pm tomorrow. Despite finding nothing in my luggage, this has all fallen to me to deal with and fix, and neither SWISS nor the Geneva version of the TSA will take any responsibility or offer any assistance. It’s simply one of the pitfalls of travel, a loophole I have fallen in and now have to climb out of.
When I arrive in Zurich, I steel myself for another round of absurdity. After all, I’ve just transited inside Switzerland, so I should be able to expect the same issues. The final irony? The airline security contingent asks me exactly TWO questions before politely saying, “Thank you, sir, have a nice flight.”
Greg Roach is the founder of Spirit Quest Tours—a luxury spiritual travel company—and a world traveler.
I also work in the travel industry as a travel agent and experienced a similar security scrutiny situation with El Al while traveling to Israel from the USA on business in Feb. 2012. I was traveling with colleagues to the Mediterranean Travel Marketplace–and was partially hosted by El Al and the Israel Tourism Dept. for this trip. While flying out of Los Angeles, I was intensely interrogated for some reason at check-in (the security agents apparently were not pre-advised and didn’t know anything about this show) and they asked for documentation as proof of the show, who had I talked to and worked with, who was I traveling with and where was I staying, why was I really going, etc. then they tag-teamed each other and asked the same questions all over again. They also wanted to take my carry-on luggage away for inspection. I protested saying that I needed to do some pre-flight work on my laptop. They insisted that I be at the gate one hour prior to departure, where they then escorted me back and inspected everything in my possession while passengers traipsed by looking at me like I was a criminal. Of course they found nothing. I was finally allowed on the plane–the last passenger I believe. No apologies were offered. Once in Israel, we had a great time experiencing the tradeshow and all the famous sites of Israel including the Dead Sea. Out of Christian curiosity, our last visit was to Bethlehem in Palestine. Two of us separated from the group at that point and boarded an Israir flight to Eilat that afternoon with hopes to visit Petra the next day on a day tour. Once airport security found out that we traveled to Bethlehem, they pulled everything out of our luggage for inspection, interrogated us again, treated our Dead Sea facial mud like it was a dangerous weapon, and then berated us for holding up the flight while we re-packed everything up again. We were almost in tears. Upon arrival into Eilat (the last flight of the day on Friday), the airport luggage guard yelled at us again to get out of the airport so they could close for the Sabbath as we tried to re-pack the mud that security had separated and boxed up. We experienced rudeness and bad manners while in Eilat, and were then told that our once-in-a-lifetime tour to Petra had to be canceled due to cold weather (we found out the following day that other tours had gone as planned). While flying back to Tel Aviv from Eilat, security again scrutinized me, made us check in twice, then took my facial mud out of my bag and repackaged it separately again (I never even saw them do this as they did it after I was already waiting at the gate). Upon arrival in Tel Aviv, one mud package was crushed and splattered on the belt, yet the agent for damaged luggage refused to accept responsibility–saying it was my fault and that I shouldn’t have packaged it that way!! Even when I explained to her what happened, she said it was security’s fault and not the airline’s responsibility–finger-pointing and passing the blame. We had to transfer terminals in Tel Aviv to get to our international departure gate, and once again, I was separated, interrogated and my luggage was examined with a fine tooth comb. Once I made it to internal security, I was sent to another “special” line to have my carry-on bag examined again–everything was taken out one by one and looked over and I was made to stand there and watch while they did it. I barely made my flight, and I wondered whose responsibility it would be had I missed my flight. I guess I have now learned that they would hold me responsible. I have since heard and read many horror stories worse than mine. I was at least not strip searched and/or detained overnight or longer as I hear some people are. Due to the rudeness and intense security scrutiny that I experienced on this trip–our first visit to Israel–I had to tell all the wonderful tour operators whom I had hoped to work with to bring back group business–that I simply could not do it for fear my clients might be treated the same way. FYI that I am a Caucasian woman (light skin, brown hair, blue eyes) in her mid-40’s. I have no idea if I triggered some kind of security profile or why this might have happened–none of my colleagues were treated this way. They never found a thing on me, and I have never had any problems like this before or after out of all the 60+ countries I have traveled to. Believe it that Israel treats security like no other country–it is not a pleasant situation that I would wish on anybody.