The El Al security agents eyes me suspiciously as he rifles through my passport. Multiple stamps for Egypt, Indonesia and Morocco have invited some extra scrutiny. No problem. I was expecting this. Flights on El Al are always a problem.
I’m leaving Geneva (on a Swiss Air flight operated by El Al airlines) headed to Tel Aviv. Since I’m only 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 checked in online and printed my boarding pass at my friend’s apartment, where I am staying in Geneva. The El Al website says to arrive two hours before your departure if you’re checking luggage and an hour ahead with only hand luggage. Standard stuff. I am there precisely as directed. Once I clear all the departure formalities, passport check, security line, etc I’m at my gate 40 minutes before the flight leaves. But somewhere along the way, I missed the extra El Al interrogation procedures and don’t possess the requisite security sticker on my boarding pass. Mysteriously, the El Al security brigade has already closed up shop by the time I get to the gate. My lack of sticker creates a minor furor as they scramble to find the security officers.
Ten minutes later I stand before the withering gaze of one of these “experts” who can’t seem to comprehend that the reason for my suspiciously exotic collection of visa stamps is that I own a travel company. Finally satisfied, he asks me one last question, almost as an afterthought: “At what hotel did you stay in Geneva?”
“No hotel. I stayed with a friend.”
“And this friend’s name?” Despite being a French citizen, born in Corsica and living in Switzerland, my friend is of Moroccan ancestry and has a name to match. Perhaps foolishly I give the name, and this was when the wheels came off the bus.
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. The man in charge reminded me of the prison warden from “Midnight Express.”
I have to show them my company website, e-mails and itinerary for my Israel trip. The questions become more belligerent and ridiculous, and I am increasingly uncomfortable. The clock is ticking and I can see the Swiss Air staff hovering nervously, anxious to close the gate.
Finally, the warden relents and agrees to let me onto the flight, if I take nothing with me and boarded immediately. My hand luggage will stay behind for inspection. The Swiss flight manager announces that the aircraft door will close in 90 seconds.
“Fine. May I bring my wallet?” I say, seeing a light at the end of this weird tunnel. Then it hits me. “What exactly will happen to my luggage?”
“We need three hours to inspect it. Your bags will arrive in Tel Aviv tomorrow via cargo shipment.”
Great. Images of broken cameras and a shattered laptop screen float through my head. I quickly realize that thousands of dollars of electronics are at risk.
Just as I start to repack, trying to wedge my laptop between underwear and T-Shirts in my roll-aboard, the Swiss Air 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.
I’m escorted back through passport control to the Swiss Air service desk where I’m informed 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 Air is concerned, the intransigence of the El Al security team has nothing to do with them. From Swiss Air’s perspective I just missed my flight. Period. And that’s my problem, not theirs. I stand for almost a full hour while the Swiss Air rep pounds furiously on her keyboard – she 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 hundreds of dollars 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 4PM, I will now land in Tel Aviv at 4AM tomorrow. Despite finding nothing in my luggage, this has all fallen to me to deal with and fix, and neither SwissAir nor the Geneva version of the TSA will take any responsibility or offer any assistance. It’s simply part 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.”