Israeli Airport Security and Learning from Other Countries

by Nathan on August 22, 2011

I was pleased to hear recently that Boston’s busy Logan Airport is now implementing a behavior-based airport security system. This system, referred to as Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (or SPOT), will non-intrusively screen passengers through the entire airport process – from the moment they enter the departure terminal, through bag check and while at the gate. Security officials will ask passengers harmless questions and judge their behavioral responses to these questions. The officials will be trained to look for passengers who, when answering their questions, exhibit suspicious behavior, which is revealed through changes in body language and facial expressions. This will allow airport security to contain a possible threat much earlier, say at the doors of the airport rather than at bag check.

The SPOT method is derived from a system that has been in place at Israel’s Ben Guiron Airport for the past several decades, with the last terrorist penetration being in 1972. (Read more here and here.)

With a population of less than 8 million people, Israel has been completely and ceaselessly surrounded by 300 million enemies since its conception (*Note: these figures are current populations). After losing conventional battles along the normal modes of war, their enemies turned to other means, one of which was hijacking. Seeing that they were indeed surrounded by so many enemies, Israel had to adopt a method to counter these attacks in order to survive as a nation. (And not to mention, Israel had to ensure a safe and friendly environment for foreign businessmen, as their small market isn’t enough thrive upon.) Thus after all these years, I think it is safe to say that this method has been a resounding success. That is why I am greatly pleased to see that the United States is learning from our democratic ally in the Middle East, and applying their techniques to our own airports to improve their security and efficiency.

More importantly, I am pleased that Americans have an open mind to learning from other countries and cultures. I sincerely believe that the ability and willingness to observe and learn from other countries and adopt their successful way of doing things to our American system will greatly benefit us in the long run. This is, however, not to say that everything another country does is good or right for us. For instance, I have grave reservations about high-speed rail which is being greatly touted in Europe, Japan, and China. While perhaps it’s an appropriate means to travel between small European countries, especially where fuel prices are very high, I’m not sure it would be economical or even practical in the United States. (See good op-eds on high-speed rail proposals in America here, here, and here.) It just means that there are some things that they do that we can implement into our American social, political, and economic system; things that, if implemented, would greatly transform our American way of life for the better.

The development of the Toyota Production System, for instance, is one particular example of how one country adopted another’s practice, and profoundly altered its native country’s economy and culture. In 1950, Eiji Toyoda, nephew to the founder of Toyota Industries, went on a 12-week tour of the United States to study mass production manufacturing methods at plants at the Ford Motor Company. At the time, production rates of Toyota vehicles completely paled in comparison with Ford at a ratio of about 16,000 Ford vehicles to one Toyota vehicle.

Throughout his tour of the United States, Toyoda learned a lot about American manufacturing. He learned about the utility of interchangeable machine parts, time studies, and continuous material flow. He was in awe when witnessing how quickly Ford’s assembly line moved, and how the workers were all very heavily specialized. But one particular concept, that was integral to the final Toyota Production System, he observed not on the Ford shop floors or headquarters offices, but at an American grocery store. As Professor of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan Jeffrey Liker wrote, in his book, The Toyota Way, “One very important idea [to the Toyota Production System] was the concept of the ‘pull system’… In any well-run supermarket, individual items are replenished as each item begins to run low on the shelf. That is, material replenishment is initiated by consumption.” This concept, eventually known as just-in-time inventory, means that a company can deliver “the right items at the right time in the right amounts… it allows you to be responsive to the day-by-day shifts in customer demand, which was exactly what Toyota needed all along.” In short, it allows the company to very quickly adapt their products to the constantly changing needs of the customer.

The Toyota Production System had a profoundly deep effect on Japan’s economy and culture. Japan used to be mocked for their poor quality products. Now they’re highly revered for their efficiency and are recognized among the best in the world for their goods. And finally, in 2010 Toyota became the world’s largest producer of automobiles, unseating long-time top giant General Motors.

This example poignantly illustrates how industrialists from one country visited another with the express intent to learn from them, brought transferable lessons back to their home country, and very successfully implemented them. While not all of Ford’s practices appealed to Toyoda, such as their batch production methods which oftentimes created too many final products, there was much he did like, and much that he thought would align with Japan’s cultural modus operandi.

If caution and wisdom are rightly applied, there is great potential to transform one’s way of business and culture by learning from and modeling oneself after another’s positive behavior and practices. In fact, these cross-border knowledge transfers have immensely contributed to the advancement of civilization across history. Thomas Sowell, an expert on cultural interactions, said in a speech he delivered sometime ago,

“The entire history of the human race, the rise of man from the caves, has been marked by transfers of cultural advances from one group to another and from one civilization to another.  Paper and printing, for example, are today vital parts of Western civilization– but they originated in China centuries before they made their way to Europe.  So did the magnetic compass, which made possible the great ages of exploration that put the Western Hemisphere in touch with the rest of mankind. Mathematical concepts likewise migrated from one culture to another: trigonometry from ancient Egypt, and the whole numbering system now used throughout the world originated among the Hindus of India, though Europeans called this system Arabic numerals because it was the Arabs who were the intermediaries through which these numbers reached medieval Europe.  Indeed, much of the philosophy of ancient Greece first reached Western Europe in Arabic translations, which were then retranslated into Latin or into the vernacular languages of the West Europeans. Much that became part of the culture of Western civilization originated outside that civilization, often in the Middle East or Asia.”

It is, in short, a very welcome development to see that the United States is still – in this case with Israel – casting glances with an open mind toward countries that do certain things better than we do. The Israeli airport security methods are only just being implemented, but I have the feeling that they will have great potential to improve our air travel experience, especially in light of the recent stifling measures the TSA has been applying. While countries still have a lot to learn from us, we certainly have a lot to learn from them as well.

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