Aviation conference discusses B-G's need for fog solution

Day after flights were delayed for half a day due to heavy fog, transportation minister says alternate int'l airport needed.

November 18, 2010 04:20
An airplane parked at a gate at Ben Gurion Airport.

311_airplane. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Israel’s annual Civilian Aviation Conference was held in Herzliya on Wednesday, a day after fog at Ben-Gurion Airport disrupted commercial air traffic for half a day, causing lengthy delays and sending airliners to land in alternate airports in Jordan and Cyprus.

The conference, which drew roughly 200 participants, dealt with a range of issues relating to Israel’s commercial, general and recreational aviation industry.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said in his address to the conference attendees that Tuesday’s flight disruptions proved that Israel needs an alternate international airport to Ben-Gurion and pointed the finger at the air force, which he claimed was mounting difficulties that made establishing an alternative difficult for the ministry and the aviation authorities to promote.

An alternative airport is one where flights that can’t land at Ben-Gurion can be diverted to. Until July, Israel’s alternate was Ovda Airport, 40 kilometers north of Eilat, but the Civil Aviation Authority decided to replace it with the Larnaca airport in Cyprus, citing operational and service related issues that made Ovda unsuitable.

“Most countries have an air force; in Israel the air force has a country. The main problem is that even when the government decides that an alternative airport is necessary, the air force expresses reservations and things don’t go ahead,” Katz said.

He said the ministry preferred to establish an alternative on existing airport infrastructures and that such infrastructure existed in air force facilities like the Nevatim air base near Beersheba and the Ramat David air base in the Galilee, but that the air force did not want to mix military and civilian flights in the same facility.

The minister said that building a runway that would project off the coast near the Haifa Port was also being considered.

Katz also addressed the shortage of an advanced Instrument Landing System at Ben-Gurion Airport, a system that would enable more planes to land in difficult weather and visibility conditions.

He said the ministry had not received a request for help from the Civil Aviation Authority or the Israel Aviation Authority to install such a system and that if they file a request, the ministry would help. He added that such a system would not have helped on Tuesday because of the thickness of the fog.

Katz also spoke about the need to establish a National Aviation Security Authority, to take over airline security responsibilities from El Al Israel Airways.

“El Al as a private company doesn’t want, nor should it be required, to provide these services. In light of the importance of the issue and the growing threats, it makes perfect sense for a national authority to be formed for that purpose. All the relevant bodies approve of it; the only obstacle is the Finance Ministry, which opposes it for bureaucratic reasons,” Katz said.

Civil Aviation Authority director Giora Rom defended his decision to close Ovda as an alternate airport, saying that his chief concern was safety and that comfort and convenience came second.

“As a father, I would rather have my daughter land safely in Cyprus than land at an airport that is not equipped to handle commercial aircraft like Ovda,” he said.

Rom said that Ovda, which can only accommodate four or five planes, wouldn’t have helped the situation on Tuesday even if it was open, because there were 25 aircraft that had to be diverted.

Rom also spoke about Israel’s drop in the US Federal Aviation Authority safety ranking in 2008, from category 1 to category 2, saying that in its effort to return to category one standing, Israel had to completely restructure its civil aviation sector and that the process included legislation that was bound to take a long time.

Rom said that visiting International Aviation Transport Association chairman Giovanni Bisignani’s statement last week that Israel should have regained its category 1 status within a year was “nonsense” and that Israel had corrected 64 out of 89 elements required in record time and in a way that reformed its entire system of operations.

Rom also criticized the media for “its distorted coverage of aviation safety.”

The media was quick to pounce on every accident report and exaggerate the safety risks, but neglected to note the effectiveness of the system that ensured that 80,000 commercial flights a year operated with no problems, he said. In 2009, a total of five people died in civil aviation related accidents and in 2010, only three people died, Rom said.

He characterized his job as the most thankless in the public service.

Kobi Mor, director of the Israel Aviation Authority, also said that Tuesday’s fog was a rare occurrence and that even if Ben-Gurion had an advanced Instrument Landing System in place, it wouldn’t have helped because visibility at some points was down to 50 meters.

Mor spoke about the IAA’s investment in safety and service equipment, claiming it had spent NIS 3 billion over the past year on things like a new radar, an advanced flight control simulator and the hiring and training of 50 new flight controllers.

Mor said that the upgrade on a major runway at Ben-Gurion Airport was well on its way and that he anticipated it would be complete before schedule.

He also commented on complaints and lawsuits issued against the IAA by communities near Ben-Gurion for noise violations. People had to accept that noise was part and parcel of modern aviation, he said. “I have yet to hear of planes that can land and take off without making noise. It is something people have to learn to live with,” he said.

Mor also spoke about the construction of a second international airport in the South, stating that plans for the airport in Timna, near Eilat, were making their way through the planning authorities and that he hoped to have it up and running before the end of the decade.

"The IDF has offered several alternatives for the establishment of an alternate international airport, which are currently being deliberated," said the IDF's Spokesman's office in response.

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