Traffic at Israel’s busiest airport dwindled as U.S.-based airlines halted Tel Aviv flights after a rocket attack prompted regulators to impose a 24-hour ban and some European carriers suspended operations.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration imposed the no-fly rule today after a rocket landed 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) from Ben Gurion International Airport. As American, United and Delta airlines complied, El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. vowed to keep flying and offered to assist U.S. carriers with rebookings.
The cancellations were the first of their kind for Tel Aviv since Iraq’s Scud missile bombardment during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, according to Israel’s Aviation Authority. Increasingly sophisticated missiles fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip are putting more of Israel within range of a weeks-long barrage that has triggered air strikes and command raids.
“In the old days, some of these missiles wouldn’t have even made it out of Gaza,” said Richard Bloom, director of Terrorism, Intelligence and Security Studies at the Prescott, Arizona, campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Then they were landing in southern Israel and now they’ve been going farther and farther north.”
For planes, the threat from surface-to-surface weapons like those launched from Gaza is blast damage while on the ground. That differentiates them from systems like the radar-guided Buk missile linked to the shoot-down over Ukraine of Malaysian Air Flight 17, which tracks and destroys aircraft in flight.
Israeli Transport Minister Israel Katz said Ben Gurion remains safe, according to that country’s Aviation Authority. A text message from the agency cited Katz as saying that a suspension of flying would “give a prize to terror.”
Deutsche Lufthansa AG said it halted flights for 48 hours, while Air France said Tel Aviv operations were on indefinite hold. British Airways said Israel service was continuing as normal. Agence France-Presse reported that the European Aviation Safety Agency urged carriers from the region to avoid Israel.
United parent United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. said they were suspending flights until further notice. American Airlines Group Inc. said only that it was scrubbing one round-trip today between Philadelphia and Ben Gurion International. Air Canada scrapped service to and from Israel tonight, according to a Twitter message from the carrier.
“El Al will continue to fly as usual,” the Lod, Israel-based carrier said in a statement. “El Al will be pleased to provide assistance for U.S. airlines, while giving preference to travelers who previously bought tickets on El Al.”
The FAA said it would update U.S. airlines within 24 hours on the status of the Tel Aviv restrictions. The agency prohibits U.S. carriers from flying over Libya and parts of Ethiopia. Last week it also barred flights over the areas of eastern Ukraine after Flight 17 was destroyed.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, dismissed suggestions that the FAA’s Israel no-fly move and a travel warning issued yesterday were intended to increase U.S. diplomatic pressure as the Obama administration seeks a cease-fire amid Israel’s strikes against Gaza.
“The FAA makes these decisions when they feel it’s warranted, again for the safety of United States citizens,” Harf told reporters in Washington.
More than 570 Palestinians and at least 29 Israelis have been killed during the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and Israeli air strikes on the area that escalated July 8. The rising death toll among Palestinian civilians has spurred calls in the U.S. and elsewhere to halt the barrage from Gaza and Israel’s counterattacks.
The flight disruptions come in the middle of the busy summer-travel season in the Northern Hemisphere. Besides acting as a base for El Al, Ben Gurion Airport is served by carriers as diverse as Korean Air Lines Co. and U.K.-based discounter EasyJet Plc.
Passenger traffic at Ben Gurion climbed 8.3 percent in 2013 to 14.23 million, according to data from Airports Council International.
The Union for Reform Judaism, which sends about 600 students ranging from 10th grade to post-graduate on trips to Israel each summer, has a dozen groups there now, including 25 young people who had been scheduled to return tonight, said Mark Pelavin, a spokesman for the New York-based organization.
The students are staying at Kibbutz Tzuba, home of the Reform Movement’s residential high school program outside Jerusalem, where they can continue with programs until they are able to get on a flight.
Rebooking the group is “going to be a challenge,” Pelavin said. “Part of it depends on how long the situation continues. We’re working now with our agents and the airlines directly to figure out what our options are.”