FAA bans U.S. airlines from flying to or from Tel Aviv

The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday afternoon ordered U.S. carriers to stop flying to or from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, prohibiting them from traveling through Israel’s largest airport after a rocket landed nearby.

Airlines were banned from flying to Tel Aviv for a 24-hour period beginning on Tuesday at 12:15 p.m. The FAA said it will issue additional guidance by the end of that period.

This prohibition came after a rocket landed about a mile away from the airport, the FAA said.

“The FAA immediately notified U.S. carriers when the agency learned of the rocket strike and informed them that the agency was finalizing [the notice],” the agency said in a statement. “The FAA will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation.”

Even before the FAA’s notice was sent out, several U.S. airlines began canceling flights on Tuesday morning and afternoon.

Delta Airlines was the first to cancel, suspending its service between New York and Tel Aviv after one of its flights between the two cities was diverted. The Delta flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Ben Gurion was diverted to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.

That flight, which had 273 passengers and 17 crew members on board, was heading to Tel Aviv when it was diverted after the report of a rocket near Ben Gurion.

United Airlines suspended all operations to and from Tel Aviv “until further notice,” the airline said in a statement. Two US Airways flights between Tel Aviv and Philadelphia on Tuesday were also canceled in response to security concerns, said a spokeswoman for American Airlines (which merged with US Airways).

While the FAA notice did not cover airlines based outside the United States, airlines in other countries began to follow suit and cancel flights. Air France said they were suspending flights to Israel until further notice; Air Canada canceled flights to and from Tel Aviv and said it would continue monitoring the situation.

The State Department issued a warning on Monday advising U.S. citizens to delay “non-essential travel to Israel and the West Bank,” owing to the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. This travel warning, replacing one issued earlier in the year, noted that long-range rockets from Gaza have reached Tel Aviv. This was the scene at Ben Gurion at around 2 p.m. in Washington (so around 9 p.m. in Tel Aviv), with travelers lined up at the airport:

News of the diverted Delta flight and the ban on U.S. flights to and from Israel comes just days after a Malaysian passenger jet was shot down in eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people. Authorities believe the flight was shot down by a missile battery located in an area held by pro-Russian separatists, and recorded conversations indicate that rebel leaders believed they were shooting down a military transport jet rather than a commercial airliner.

The shooting down of the plane highlighted the danger faced by airlines operating near areas with armed conflicts and rocket fire. The FAA prohibited any U.S. carriers from flying over eastern Ukraine after the Malaysian flight was shot down.

​Though there was no immediate description of the rocket that landed near Ben Gurion, the hundreds of rockets that Hamas militants have fired into Israel in recent weeks in no way resemble the missile which took down Malaysia Air flight 17 last Thursday. The Hamas weapons are surface to surface rockets that lack sophisticated guidance systems and often fall harmlessly in remote, scarcely populated sections of Israel. The Malaysian airliner was believed to have been struck by a Russian-make Buk SA-11 surface to air missile. The plane was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet when the missile struck.

“The only consideration in issuing the notice was the safety and security of our citizens,” Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the State Department, said. “The FAA continues to monitor and evaluate the situation, and will issue updated guidelines no later than 24 hours from the time the [notice] went into force.”

Israeli officials had called for the FAA to allow flights to resume, sentiments that were echoed in the U.S. On Tuesday night, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he would fly to Israel on El Al — which maintained service to and from Israel — to protest the FAA’s decision.

“The flight restrictions are a mistake that hands Hamas an undeserved victory and should be lifted immediately,” he said in a statement posted on his Web site. “I strongly urge the FAA to reverse course and permit US airlines to fly to Israel.”

Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.

This post will be updated. Last update: 9:43 p.m.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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