Transportation Minister Israel Katz on Wednesday instructed the relevant agencies to immediately open the Uvda airport, the country's second terminus for air traffic which lies just north of Eilat, in the wake of the spate of flight cancellations announced by major foreign airlines.
Katz convened a meeting of senior civilian aviation officials who recommended that the Uvda airport be utilized to replace Ben-Gurion Airport.
Speaking to reporters at Ben-Gurion Airport, Katz said that Uvda would begin operating at noon local time. The minister said that efforts are also being made to provide service to some 4,000 Israelis who were left stranded in Istanbul after their airlines refused to fly into Lod in light of the FAA ban announced on Tuesday.
Katz said that his ministry had urged Turkish aviation officials to transport the Israelis back home, but that the Turks are hesitant to land their aircraft in Uvda.
Air travel to Israel from all American carriers and several European ones came to a halt on Tuesday after the Federal Aviation Authority banned US airlines from traveling to and from Ben-Gurion Airport for 24 hours.
The decision followed the successful firing of a Hamas rocket into a house in Yehud, near Ben-Gurion Airport earlier in the day.
“The FAA immediately notified US carriers when the agency learned of the rocket strike and informed them that the agency was finalizing a [Notice to Airmen]” prohibiting the flights, an FAA statement read.
American aviation companies Delta and United Airlines said they were suspending flights to Israel “indefinitely,” while US Airways reportedly only suspended flights for the night.
Soon after the FAA decision, Lufthansa announced a 36-hour suspension, which included subsidiaries Germanwings, Austrian Airlines and Swiss, and Air France announced its own indefinite suspension.
“As soon as the FAA gives such an order to US carriers, in most cases it’s a domino effect, and most European carriers will be forced to suspend their flights,” said an industry source.
The European Aviation Safety Agency was also expected to release a “strong recommendation” against flying to Israel, according to several media sources.
Delta diverted flight 468 from JFK, which was already en route to Tel Aviv with 273 passengers and 17 crew members, to Charles de Gaulle in Paris “after reports of a rocket or associated debris near the airport in Tel Aviv,” and said that it was working to accommodate its customers.
Earlier in the conflict, Korean Air suspended operations for a week.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday evening, and asked him to help restore regular flights to Israel from the US.
Katz called on American aviation companies to return to normal functioning, stressing that Ben-Gurion Airport was safe for take-offs and landings, and that there was no security concern for passenger planes.
“There is no reason for the American companies to stop their flights and give a prize to terror,” he said.
Hamas has explicitly targeted the airport in hopes of stopping or slowing air traffic.
Earlier in the conflict, it lobbed a handful of rockets in the direction of the airport, suspending traffic there for nine minutes.
“The armed wing of the Hamas movement has decided to respond to the Israeli aggression, and we warn you against carrying out flights to Ben-Gurion Airport, which will be one of our targets today because it also hosts a military air base,” a statement by the group said at the time.
In an interview with Channel 2, Katz added that he believed the FAA decision was an automatic reaction to the rocket landing, and hoped to convince them to reinstate flights on Wednesday. Despite some foreign airlines’ concerns, El Al said that “There is no chance we will stop operations.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the FAA notice was motivated exclusively by security concerns and was being continually reviewed.
In labor disputes with the government, El Al has argued that it is the only airline the country can rely on to continue flying during tough security times, and that Israel should foot more of the bill for its security needs. During the 1991 Gulf War, every airline but El Al suspended service to Israel.
Asked whether Netanyahu had asked the FAA to rescind the order, a senior Obama administration official said he was not aware of the request, but added: "We're not going to overrule the FAA, period."
"If the FAA says this crosses our tripwires, we're not going to say 'Don't warn civil aviation.' We understand Israeli concerns. They don't want to have a shutdown of air traffic into Ben Gurion. We can look at this every 24 hours, but (when) a rocket lands a mile from that airport, that kind of trips their wire."
In recent weeks, Ben-Gurion Airport has rerouted flights’ landing and takeoff paths to the north in order to boost security in the face of rockets from the South.
Though the Iron Dome missile defense system has managed to shoot down about 90 percent of rockets headed toward populated or strategic areas, the FAA’s decision was likely fueled by the recent downing of a Malaysian plane in Ukraine, likely by pro-Russian rebels.
Should the suspension continue, it could have a significant impact on Israel’s economy.
Tourism accounts for about 5% of Israel’s exports and about 1.5%-2% of GDP.
Incoming tourism has already declined as a result of the rocket fire from Gaza, with organized groups canceling at a rate of about 30% for July and August.
Yet the cancellation of flights, should it continue for a significant period of time, could have a greater impact on the economy. A May report by the Bank of Israel found that business travel to Israel tends to be more resilient than leisure tourism in the face of security problems.
Without ways to get into the country, however, business travelers, who have historically accounted for 12%-20% of travelers to Israel, will also be kept behind.
Worse, the precedent of flights canceled due to security may deter them from future business dealings.
On the other hand, the economic effects of a oneday suspension would be negligible, according to the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce’s Uriel Lynn.
“Is it affecting Israel’s business now? No. It’s 24 hours. It’s not a big deal. We have telecommunications infrastructure that helps us get business done,” Lynn told The Jerusalem Post.
The chances of a longer suspension seemed unlikely, he added, given Hamas’s inability to strike at the airport up until now. America’s political stance on terrorism and alliance with Israel, Lynn offered, would likely affect the FAA’s decision.
“The moment they forbid flights to Israel, they strengthen Hamas, who say, ‘Great, we’re succeeding in isolating Israel, we’re fulfilling our goals.’ I don’t think the FAA wants to do that,” he said.
On Monday, the US State Department issued a travel warning recommending “that US citizens consider the deferral of non-essential travel to Israel and the West Bank,” but noted that “Ben-Gurion Airport is currently open and commercial flights are operating normally, although delays and cancellations can occur.”
MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) said US demands for a cease-fire contradict its canceling flights and issuing travel warnings.
“If we are being asked to hold our fire, we must have already succeeded in restoring peace and quiet. If it is unsafe for flights and US citizens to come to Israel, then we clearly have more fighting to do to protect ourselves from Hamas. Some clarifications and explaining is certainly in order,” he said.
MK Danny Danon (Likud) pointed out that many airlines from countries that are less friendly to Israel than the US did not cancel flights.
“I hope this decision will be changed and will not help Hamas’s psychological warfare,” Danon said.