Travelers stranded as Israel-Dubai flight security dispute unresolved

In recent weeks, tourists have continued to report sudden cancellations and delays, often with little to no warning before the day of their scheduled flight.

el al plane (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
el al plane
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Tourists traveling between Tel Aviv and Dubai have ended up stranded in the United Arab Emirates, scrambling to make last-minute contingency plans, as flights continue to be suddenly canceled with little warning amid a seemingly continuing security dispute between Israeli and Emirati authorities.

Earlier this year, flights between Israel and Dubai began experiencing delays and cancellations, with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) later announcing that these were being caused by a dispute between Israeli and Emirati authorities concerning security arrangements for the flights. The situation escalated to the point of Israeli flight routes to Dubai being at threat of complete cancellation at the beginning of March.

On March 4, the Shin Bet announced that it had resolved the dispute and that flights would return to fly on a “regular and consistent basis” as they had before the dispute began.

Despite the announcement by the Shin Bet, in recent weeks tourists have continued to report sudden cancellations and delays, often with little to no warning before the day of their scheduled flight. The ongoing crisis has led to tourists having to suddenly book a longer stay or new rooms at hotels and for travelers who keep kosher to have to make additional food arrangements with little notice, adding significant and unexpected additional costs to their trips.

Israeli airlines are secured by Israeli security officers both in Tel Aviv and in the airports they travel to and from in other countries.

 Dubai panorama from tall building (credit: INGIMAGE) Dubai panorama from tall building (credit: INGIMAGE)

While originally a large number of security officers were given visas to secure flights in Dubai, that number suddenly began to fall in recent months, with Emirati officials providing fewer visas to security workers. This meant that there were fewer security officers to secure Israeli flights, meaning that fewer Israeli flights could be secured and take off.

A source in the tourism industry told The Jerusalem Post that in original understandings reached between Israeli and Emirati authorities, dozens of flights by Israeli airlines were approved to fly per week between Dubai and Tel Aviv. However, due to the security dispute, that number fell to just a couple of flights per day in each direction, with El Al getting one flight, Israir getting another and Arkia getting the last one.

While the Shin Bet’s announcement claimed that the dispute had been resolved and flights could return to their normal schedule, the source in the tourism industry stated the number of visas approved for security workers only rose slightly and remained relatively low, forcing airlines to continue to cancel flights.

Since the airlines also sometimes do not know until the day of departure whether their flight will be canceled or leave on time, flights may not get canceled until the last moment, leaving tourists who had thought it was safe to fly stranded and suddenly needing to arrange hotel and food plans on extremely short notice.

Rabbi Aryeh Wasserman, an administrator at Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah, who recently traveled to the UAE, told the Post that his group was also caught off guard by the sudden cancellations, saying the yeshiva had moved forward with its travel plans after seeing the Shin Bet’s statement that the dispute had been resolved.

WASSERMAN EXPLAINED how the group’s Israir flight to Dubai was delayed due to what was announced as a “system malfunction” at the check-in counter. “However, upon arrival in Dubai, I learned that our flight was the only flight of four scheduled Israir flights that got a permit to fly that Monday,” the rabbi said, adding that the group’s return flight, which was meant to depart on a Thursday evening, was set to be canceled as well.

“The next week was a blur for me, trying to run all the logistics of the trip, while at the same time figuring out a solution for our group of almost 40,” said Wasserman. “Being shomrei Shabbat (following the religious laws of Shabbat), flying Friday evening – and of course, Saturday – was not an option as it was too close to Shabbat, and being rescheduled to a Sunday flight would double the cost of our trip, which was obviously not in our budget.”

After two days of effort, the yeshiva was able to book a flight on Friday in the early afternoon. The flight ended up being significantly delayed, leading to the yeshiva only having about 30 minutes in order to get from the gate to the buses before sunset in order to avoid desecrating Shabbat.

“It was so disappointing to learn from our friends in Dubai that the whole situation could have been avoided if the Israeli airlines and Israeli government had held up their promises about the security arrangement – which they didn’t – [and] been truthful about the lack of resolution, – which the Transportation Ministry and media lied about,” said Wasserman. “On top of all of that, when it came down to protecting the sanctity of Shabbat, as many connections as we tried, Israeli authorities were not willing to even work with us to arrange for PCR tests after Shabbat, which would have saved us another 20 minutes.”

Wasserman stressed that the authorities in Dubai were much more understanding of the situation, with Emirati locals and Jewish residents of the UAE even offering to open up their homes and help provide food if the yeshiva ended up needing to stay in Dubai for Shabbat.

In a statement, the Israeli airline El Al said that while the number of flights for Israeli airlines had increased from the minimum it had reached during the crisis, there was still work needed to be done in order to return flights to the rate Israeli authorities had said airlines would be able to fly before the dispute began.

“Unfortunately, the rate of increase in flights is slower than the rate of demand for them and therefore El Al has to adapt to these constraints, which leads to the cancellation of some flights planned according to the approvals given by the state before the crisis, of course, due to circumstances beyond El Al’s control,” said the company.

El Al said it would continue to work with the authorities to advance the additional flights required and expressed hopes that the situation would eventually be resolved.

As of publication, the Shin Bet and Transportation Ministry had failed to respond to requests for comment on the matter.