Crafting no-fly orders for U.S. flights into Israel or over Ukraine requires as much deftness in politics as it does in assessing terror threats.
The decisions in the past week by the Federal Aviation Administration relied on a little-known group within the agency assigned with reading classified intelligence reports and making recommendations to protect airlines from danger, said Rebecca MacPherson, a former FAA lawyer who participated in its work.
Often the group stops short of barring flights altogether and instead issues risk warnings that allow airlines to use their own discretion and caution for flying over trouble spots, MacPherson said in an interview.
The FAA tends to err on the side of safety, while other agencies “might want to massage things a little bit differently,” she said.
The agency today extended by 24 hours its ban on flights by U.S. carriers in and out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International airport, Israel’s international hub. The FAA said in a statement it’s working with Israel to review “significant new information they have provided” to determine whether risks are mitigated.
Israel, where tourism accounts for about 7.3 percent of the nation’s economy, opened a smaller southern airport near Eilat to international flights as an alternative to Tel Aviv.
Decisions on closing airspace can take days or weeks because the FAA has to coordinate with other government agencies, including the Department of Transportation and even the White House, said a former FAA participant in the process. The former FAA employee asked not to be named because the group discusses classified intelligence materials.
The panel is in the spotlight after public backlash to its decision yesterday to halt U.S. flights to Tel Aviv for 24 hours after a rocket landed 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) away from the airport. Israeli Transport Minister Israel Katz said the U.S. decision would “give a prize to terror.”
The only consideration in issuing the ban “was the safety and security of our citizens,” Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council at the White House, said in an e-mail.
Just days earlier, two U.S. lawmakers had raised questions about why the FAA hadn’t acted sooner to steer flights away from eastern Ukraine, where a missile struck a Malaysian Air passenger jet on July 17, killing all 298 people aboard. The agency had closed some flight lanes further south over Crimea to U.S. airlines in April.
Such controversy over when the FAA should act is consistent with MacPherson’s recollection of the process. She said it requires the agency to maneuver around the interests of multiple government bodies.
“They’ve been working very closely with Israeli authorities overnight to see if the concerns raised yesterday can be alleviated and they can lift the notice,” Tony Blinken, deputy national security adviser, said this morning on CNN. “I haven’t heard from them yet this morning.”
The issues the FAA deals with are similar at the State Department, said Larry Johnson, who served as a security officer on transportation issues at the agency from 1983 through 1993.
It was difficult to reach consensus because the agency’s economic bureau would be concerned that the financial implications on airlines while others were more concerned that security risks, he said in an interview.
Because individual nations make decisions about where their airlines may fly and have authority over their own skies, there aren’t always clear rules about when airways should be closed, Johnson said.
“The problem is, there really is nobody in charge,” he said. “Therefore, it falls to the various national and regional associations to decide what to do.”
Traffic at Ben Gurion airport, Israel’s international hub, has dwindled as large carries including Air France-KLM Group and Deutsche Lufthansa AG have suspended flights, as has EasyJet Plc, the biggest discount operator serving the airport. Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Airlines parent United Continental Holdings Inc. said they were suspending flights until further notice.
The widespread cancellations are the first 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.
British Airways said flights to Tel Aviv will continue as planned, defying a European Aviation Safety Agency recommendation that services to the Israeli city should be suspended. El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. Also vowed to keep flying and has offered to assist airlines with rebookings.
The FAA has banned U.S. carriers from flying over such places as North Korea, Libya and northern Ethiopia, according to an agency website. It has issued warnings or partial restrictions on flights above other nations, including Iraq and Syria.
It also frequently closes of areas of the U.S. to flights following natural disasters or for security reasons when the president flies to a city.