FAA bans US flights to Tel Aviv airport, as Israeli critics cry foul

The Federal Aviation Administration order comes after several US airlines had already canceled flights, citing safety concerns. Israeli official dubs the move a 'prize to terror.'

Julio Cortez/AP
Travelers congregate in front of a departures board showing one canceled flight to Tel Aviv at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., on Tuesday. In a sign of increased caution about flying near combat zones, US and European airlines halted flights to Israel Tuesday after a rocket landed near Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s decision Tuesday to order a 24-hour ban on US airline flights in and out of Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport follows reports of a rocket from Gaza landing near the key transportation hub.

For some, it is a measure of prudence, especially in light of last week’s downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by a missile fired in eastern Ukraine.

For some irate Israeli officials, the order is a shocking “prize to terror” from the United States.

And for some aviation security experts, the order is both: a cautious response to a rare but clear danger on the one hand, but inevitably a psychological “coup” for Hamas on the other.

The FAA ban came just hours after the State Department on Monday issued a new travel warning for Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza that reflected rising concerns in the US about the safety of Americans as fighting between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that rules over Gaza, enters its third week.

While the State Department's warning advises travelers to defer nonessential trips to the areas, it offered no reason for them to shun Israel’s main airport. “Ben Gurion Airport is currently open and commercial flights are operating normally,” the warning said.

The FAA warning applies only to US carriers, but within a short time of the order, at least three European airlines had followed suit. Air France, Lufthansa, and KLM announced they, too, would temporarily suspend flights in and out of Ben Gurion. Air Canada announced Tuesday afternoon it was canceling its Tuesday night flight to Tel Aviv.

The FAA said it would update its order within 24 hours, and Israeli officials said they are working overtime to reassure international aviation security officials that operations at the Tel Aviv airport are safe. But it was not certain that an “all clear” report from the FAA would immediately return flights in and out of Ben Gurion to normal.

For one thing, the FAA issued its ban on flights after several US carriers, including Delta, American, United, and US Airways announced they were canceling flights in and out of Ben Gurion. Some of the airlines said they were canceling flights indefinitely, while US Airways spoke only of canceling flights for the night. The airlines’ announcement followed a decision by Delta Tuesday to redirect a New York flight en route to Ben Gurion and already over the Mediterranean to land instead in Paris. 

The moves by the US airlines prompted Israeli Transportation Minister Israel Katz to accuse them of “giving a prize to terror” by canceling flights.

The subsequent FAA order only added insult to injury. One member of the Israeli Knesset issued a statement accusing the US of being hypocritical by pressing Israel for a cease-fire with Hamas at the same time it issues travel warnings and bans flights to Israel.

“If we are being asked to hold our fire, we must have already succeeded in restoring peace and quiet,” Dov Lipman of the Yesh Atid party said in a statement. But “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.”

The action by foreign carriers prompted Israeli airline El Al to issue a statement insisting there is “no chance” it would cancel its Israel flights. El Al has often reminded the Israeli government, which subsidizes the carrier’s steep security costs, that it is the only airline it can count on to maintain service during challenges to national security.

El Al was the only airline that continued service in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sent Scud missiles crashing into Tel Aviv and Haifa. 

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