Why Did Airlines Cancel Their Flights to Tel Aviv?

The Wire spoke with Rick Dake and Ross Aimer about the temporary F.A.A. ban on flights to Israel and the airlines' decisions not to fly to Tel Aviv.

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Major airlines to suspend their flights to Israel's Ben Gurion Airport today after shrapnel from a Gaza rocket landed just three miles outside of the Tel Aviv airport.

Delta, soon to be followed by United and U.S. Airways, announced that it had indefinitely canceled all of its flights to Israel. The Israeli Transportation Minister Israel Katz pushed back against the decision, calling it "a prize to terror."

The Wire spoke with a few aviation experts to better understand what goes into the decision-making process and what this could mean for Israel going forward. As we noted earlier, Ben Gurion Airport handles some 90 percent of Israel's ingoing and outgoing passengers.

When we spoke with Rick Dake, a pilot for a major airline, Delta had just announced that it had suspended its flights. But Delta made its move unilaterally before the Federal Aviation Administration weighed in with its own 24-hour ban on travel to Israel.

"The Buck Stops With the Captain"

According to reports, the decision to halt Delta flights originated from one pilot. Upon hearing a report that a missile had struck near the airport, the pilot diverted the plane from its course to Tel Aviv and landed it in Paris. That it was shrapnel from a Hamas rocket that was intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome defense system is hardly a distinction worth making.

"If I was a captain of an airliner and I heard that report, I'd divert the airliner," Dake said.

Dake explained that Delta's decision to announce a suspension of all flights was most likely the product of a "roundtable" meeting" between parties like the union, the company, and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Dake predicted that the other domestic airlines would quickly follow suit. (They did as well as international airlines such as KLM, Air Canada, and Lufthansa.)

"The F.A.A. Does a lot of Shooting From the Hip"

Captain Ross Aimer (what a name for a retired pilot and the spokesman of Aero Consulting Experts) wasn't surprised that the airlines decision preceded any bans put forth by the F.A.A.

"The FAA does a lot of shooting from the hip usually after the event is over," he told The Wire.

He also stressed that, despite the considerable attention, this episode was hardly unusual in the world of aviation. "It happens a lot. Anytime there's a conflict in the world, a typhoon, a tornado, a political conflict, they say 'Let's suspend temporarily.'"

So if the airlines act unilaterally, what happens after the 24-hour F.A.A. ban on flights to Israel expires? In essence, Aimer explained, the F.A.A. gives the airlines cover to resume their flights if the situation is deemed safe. This comes after "very close coordination" between the F.A.A., the State Department, and security officials.

To avoid lawsuits, airlines have to prove that they did everything possible to avoid potential catastrophes, hence Delta's flight diversion. But no airline wants to be the first to resume flights and then have something happen.

"They're hoping the F.A.A. would make that decision for them," Aimer said.

The MH17 Effect

The entire context for any scenario involving terrorism and civilian aircraft can only be colored by the recent events in eastern Ukraine and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Both Dake and Aimer spoke to the heightened sense of peril that conflict zones create in the wake of the biggest airline catastrophe since September 11th.

But echoing Israeli Transportation Minister Israel Katz's disappointment in the suspension of the flights was George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting and a former senior consultant at Global Aviation Associates.

"It's a shame, closing the airports is probably what they [Hamas] were trying to do. If you disrupt trade, you’ve certainly accomplished something in the short run," he said to The Wire. "How long is this going to persist? Are there countermeasures that can be taken? No one wants to see an airplane shot down. I don't know if it's possible to overfly Israel."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.