U.S. flights to embattled Israel were grounded Tuesday by the Obama administration; fearing missile strikes at Tel Aviv's airport could imperil U.S. airliners and passengers. Air Canada also cancelled its Tuesday-evening overnight flight.
The suspension of flights would serve as a propaganda victory for Hamas, as it suggests Israel can’t keep secure its only major international airport. Israel’s Transportation Ministry urged airlines to keep flying insisting Ben Gurion was safe for landings and departures.
"Ben-Gurion Airport is safe and completely guarded and there is no reason whatsoever that American companies would stop their flights and hand terror a prize," said Israel’s Transportation Minister Israel Katz.
But given international outrage over the shoot down last week of a Boeing 777 over eastern Ukraine, coupled with the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian violence, the Obama administration ban – initially for only 24 hours – was also seen as a warning from Washington that it wouldn’t risk U.S. flights while both Israel and Hamas ignored calls for a ceasefire.
“Anybody that operates into Israel has to have a heightened sense of safety anyway,” said aviation industry consultant Robert Kokonis, president of Toronto-based AirTrav Inc.
In notices to passengers, both Delta and United said flights were cancelled “until further notice.”
Israel’s tourism industry – already hard hit by three major outbreaks of violence in five years – will suffer both a real and symbolic hit if major international airlines treat Ben Gurion as a destination too dangerous to serve. “The timing for airlines and for the Israeli economy is perhaps the worst it can be,” Mr. Kokonis said. “It’s a small country and tourism is a major part [of the economy].”
At least one missile – fired by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, where Israeli warplanes continues to pound targets Tuesday – landed near Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, prompting the U.S. ban.
Air Canada, which is not bound by the U.S. ban, cancelled its Toronto-Tel Aviv flight on its own and said it will continue to evaluate the situation going forward. Other international airlines, including Air France, Lufthansa and Holland’s KLM also cancelled flights on Tuesday.
Transport Canada issued no ban to match the U.S. assessment that flights were too risky. Air Canada’s decision to cancel its flights was taken in the wake of the U.S. ban and moves by other airlines. “Canada is unequivocally behind Israel,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said when the current outbreak of violence flared.
Mona Aubin, a spokesperson for International Air Transport Association, a trade association for the industry, stated that aviation wants to work with regulators to ensure safety.
“The industry will do all that it can to support governments, through ICAO, in the difficult work that lies ahead,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Globe, referring to the United Nations organization that oversees air transport.
“The two incidents in quick succession remind us that we live in uncertain times. What is certain is that aviation is absolutely dedicated to safety and secure flights,” Ms. Aubin added.
Addison Schonland, an analyst for commercial aviation consultancy AirInsight.com, said that the FAA decision shows that the industry is proceeding carefully given recent events.
“What we’re seeing here is a reaction to the Malaysian airlines incident, and it manifests itself in risk aversion for the industry,” he said in an interview. “It’s an abundance of caution.”
Mr. Schonland added that given the importance of air travel to a country’s economy, Israel will likely provide the security needed to lift the FAA restriction as soon as possible.
El Al, Israel’s airline, has continued to fly in and out of Ben Gurion.
Hamas has fired more than 2,000 mostly small surface-to-surface missiles at Israel in the latest outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence, but there is no evidence that any of the Islamist militias in Gaza have missiles capable of tracking or destroying an aircraft.
With a report from Greg Keenan