Safety risks at airport an 'immediate national threat'

Committee head Lapidot: Israel 20 years behind on standards; Mofaz: Stop spreading panic.

Ben Gurion 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Ben Gurion 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Amos Lapidot clashed bitterly on Monday with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz over safety standards at Ben-Gurion International Airport. The minister accused Lapidot, head of the Public Committee to Examine Civil Aviation Safety, of "sowing panic among the public." Lapidot countered that the situation was dire, that Israel was failing to meet international aviation safety standards, and that vital improvements to airport security and efficiency needed to be carried out immediately. The two faced off during a meeting of the Knesset State Control Committee, convened to discuss a critical report submitted by Lapidot's committee. The report examined a number of aspects of airport safety, including the state of the Civil Aviation Authority, problems in operating Ben-Gurion International Airport, procedures for investigating flight accidents and the difficulties involved in joint use of air space over Ben-Gurion by the air force and commercial flights. Mofaz told the committee the authorities had begun dealing with the problems raised by Lapidot, but that it would take three years before they were solved. "Not three years, now," retorted Lapidot. "We are at a level of immediate national danger and are already lagging 20 years behind the standards in properly-run countries, even though Israel has signed all the international safety covenants. I can't believe that danger of this nature cannot be addressed at the ministerial level. It is inconceivable that anyone with a little bit of authority can obstruct [the necessary changes] and that instead of cooperating, everyone tries to preserve his own little kingdom." Accusing Lapidot of exaggerating the risks, Mofaz replied, "Accidents can happen, but the citizens of Israel can feel safe in their flights, even if not according to the international standards that we are striving to reach." The formal purpose of the meeting was to ask State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to prepare a special study of the situation at Ben-Gurion International Airport. But Lindenstrauss said he had already begun preparing such a report after reading the Lapidot report. One of the most stinging criticisms in the report was directed at the Civil Aviation Authority. The Lapidot Committee wrote that "the ongoing instability in the authority over many years, the replacement of senior officials at a rapid rate, and the failure to grant sufficient independence to the CAA has substantially weakened it to the point where it is unable to fulfill its functions properly and in accordance with Western standards." Mofaz complained that he could not hire professional people at the CAA because the salaries he could offer were too low and the Finance Ministry was unwilling to increase the salary grade as he had requested. The committee's report followed an interim report in August 2007 after a near-collision between an El Al plane and an Iberia Airlines plane. Similar narrow misses since then have also been reported and attributed to infrastructure failings at the airport. The Lapidot Committee's report also criticized the Israeli Association of General Aviation and recommended that an independent organization be formed that would include eight experts from various aviation-related fields. It also recommended the establishment of another body that would work to promote aviation-related legislation. Soon after the Lapidot Committee's report was published, the Israel Airports Authority came up with an NIS 1.2 billion renovation plan to upgrade safety and security in Terminal 3. The plan includes building a new, higher control tower (NIS 100m.); lengthening and upgrading runways (NIS 760m.); and installing a smart ground radar (NIS 500,000) and a simulator ($250,000). Mofaz, the Finance Ministry and the government have approved the IAA's plan and it is scheduled to go into effect as soon as the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee approves it. But the IAA does not intend to finance the plan itself. A few weeks ago, it presented a plan that included raising airport tax from $13 to $21 per passenger, a decision that could be seen as reasonable, since Israel's airport tax is one of the cheapest in the world. However, a suggestion to raise the airlines' per-passenger toll from an average of $13 to $38 infuriated the carriers. Last week, 30 local and foreign airlines joined forces in a struggle against the proposed price hike, which they described as a "death blow." The IAA explained that the hike was meant to help finance the airport improvements. While newly-appointed Tourism Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila backed the airlines' demand to postpone implementation of the plan due to the shaky rate of the dollar and a worldwide economic crisis that has destabilized the entire aviation market, Mofaz suggested stretching out implementation over three years. It was that suggestion that prompted Lapidot's "Not three years, now" outburst.