The US Federal Aviation Authority on Wednesday renewed a 24-hour travel ban to and from Ben-Gurion Airport, as it “continues to monitor and evaluate the situation.”
Tuesday’s ban was prompted by a Hamas rocket landing near the airport in the town of Yehud, and restricted all American air carriers from traveling to and from Tel Aviv.
“The agency is working closely with the government of Israel to review the significant new information they have provided, and determine whether potential risks to US civil aviation are mitigated so the agency can resolve concerns as quickly as possible,” it said.
With the exception of British Airways, which continued flying to and from Israel, most major European carriers, including Lufthansa and Air France, suspended their flights Tuesday. On Wednesday Lufthansa said it would suspend flights – including its affiliates Germanwings, Austrian Airlines, Swiss and Brussels Airlines – for another 24 hours as well.
The closure struck a raw political nerve, with Israelis seeing it as a major victory for Hamas, which duly took credit for its achievement.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the decision “only rewards the Hamas terrorists for nothing,” and expressed hope it would soon be overturned.
“We protect this airport. There’s no reason whatsoever for the mistaken FAA decision to instruct American planes not to come here,” he said.
Netanyahu also raised the issue with US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose arrival in Tel Aviv on Wednesday was derided on social media as proof that the airport was, indeed, safe.
On Tuesday night, Israeli Airports Authority officials held a discussion with their American counterparts in order to demonstrate all of the protective measures Israel takes in order to provide the safest possible landing and takeoff paths to airplanes, the authority said.
While commentators speculated that the FAA decision was political, sources within the airline industry dismissed their theories, noting that the recent shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine just days before the rocket struck Yehud had put everyone on higher alert. Airlines fastidiously rerouted flying paths from the embattled parts of Ukraine, and were concerned about not making the same mistake in Israel.
“I think you have to put yourself in the shoes of aviation decision makers and remember that – regardless of when this happened – 1.5 km from the runways a rocket fell. To be on the safe side, airlines and aviation regulators will take 24, 36, 48 hours to assess the situation,” said a US industry source. “It’s not about the politics, it’s about the safety and security of the passengers.”
Between 6 p.m. Tuesday and 6 p.m. Wednesday, about 80 flights were canceled, according to the IAA, including those on Easy Jet, Turkish Airlines, Pegasus air, and others. El Al and other Israeli airlines continued flying, picking up the slack and raising prices for suddenly rare seats. Ben-Gurion Airport kept running for the eight airlines that continued to use it, turning around some 32,000 passengers on 206 flights.
Royal Jordanian said it would continue to fly to and from Israel, as well as to and from international destinations.
Greek company Blue Bird Airways maintained that it would continue to fly to and from Ben-Gurion Airport.
IAA and Transportation Ministry officials offered to open Uvda Airport, located approximately 60 kilometers north of Eilat, to some international commercial flights. It opened at noon on Wednesday, though by press time no airline had accepted the offer to use it, despite the terminal being designed to fit all types of planes.
“No airline would fly there – this is not a solution for an airport like Ben-Gurion or the residents of the central part of Israel,” said an industry source, noting its location and limited parking spaces. Major airlines would also need to undertake massive logistical and technical shifts in order to put in place a measure that would ultimately be temporary.
The IAA recommended that passengers continue to visit the airport’s website to remain updated about future flight cancellations.
El Al announced Wednesday morning that it was boosting its flight capacity to help respond to stranded travelers, including upgrading some routes to larger planes and adding new flights to Lanarca ,Cyprus and Herkalion, Crete.
As part of its efforts to improve flights and services, El Al has also expanded the operational hours of its contact center.
Because prices for summer flights were set way ahead of the peak tourism season, they have not changed despite the cancellations of foreign companies, the firm said.
“El Al is working nonstop and will continue to do its utmost for Israeli travelers in Israel and around the world,” a company spokeswoman said.
Israeli firm Arkia also added five flights on Wednesday – to Larnaca and Amman – a company spokeswoman said.