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Flight bans show skittishness over trouble spots

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, July 23 2014 7:28 a.m. MDT

A departure board at the Philadelphia International Airport shows that US Airways Flight 796 to Tel Aviv has been canceled, Tuesday, July 22, 2014, in Philadelphia. The Federal Aviation Administration is telling U.S. airlines they are prohibited from flying to the Tel Aviv airport in Israel for 24 hours after a Hamas rocket exploded nearby.

Matt Rourke, Associated Press

When U.S. and European airlines quickly canceled flights to Israel on Tuesday, they showed both a skittishness and a new sense of urgency in dealing with global trouble spots following last week's downing of a passenger plane over Ukraine.

Delta Air Lines turned around one of its jets midflight and indefinitely canceled all future flights between the U.S. and Israel after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport. Other U.S. airlines quickly took similar action, and counterparts in Europe and Canada followed within hours, despite protests from the Israeli government. Israeli airline El Al maintained its regular flight schedule.

The airlines were out ahead of aviation regulators in stopping service. The Federal Aviation Administration imposed a 24-hour ban on flights to Israel after the U.S. airlines acted. Germany's Lufthansa, Italian airline Alitalia and Air France all acted before the European Aviation Safety Agency issued an advisory.

How long the cessation of flights will last is unclear. U.S. airlines now must wait for the FAA, which said it will provide updated guidance by midday Wednesday.

Scandinavian Airlines canceled two flights from Copenhagen to Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, and said it will rethink the situation Wednesday for two more flights this week. Budget airline Norwegian said it had scrapped a flight from Stockholm to Tel Aviv on Wednesday and was monitoring the events closely, the airline's spokeswoman Charlotte Holmbergh Jacobsson said.

Also Wednesday, Royal Jordanian suspended its flights to Ben Gurion until further notice, according to the airline's spokesman, Basil al-Kilani.

Korean Air Lines Co. said on Friday that it was suspending its flights between Incheon International Airport near Seoul and Tel Aviv until at least Thursday, citing tensions between Israel and Palestine.

Aviation and legal experts said that airlines are now taking risk assessment into their own hands, both for the safety of passengers and to avoid claims of negligence, following last week's Malaysia Airlines disaster.

"Most airlines have security departments that try to evaluate those sorts of risk," said William Waldock, a professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Some do it better than others, but I would expect that everyone is on a very heightened sense of alert right now."

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, said airlines might be more proactive about avoiding hot spots, although he noted that there are very few areas where non-government militaries have weapons sophisticated enough to shoot down a plane.

Western governments have accused pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with a surface-to-air missile while it was flying at 33,000 feet. Some experts have second-guessed the airline's decision to fly over the area. But Malaysian officials have countered that the plane's path from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was approved by international regulators.

The Israel government felt the airlines overreacted Tuesday. The Transportation Ministry called on the companies to reverse their decision, insisting Ben-Gurion Airport is safe and completely guarded and saying there is no reason to "hand terror a prize," by halting the flights.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg strongly urged the FAA to "reverse course" and permit U.S. airlines to fly to Israel.

Bloomberg released a statement saying he is flying on El Al to Tel Aviv on Tuesday night to "show solidarity with the Israeli people and to demonstrate that it is safe to fly in and out of Israel."

"The U.S. flight restrictions are a mistake that hands Hamas an underserved victory and should be lifted immediately," Bloomberg said.

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