Major US, European and Canadian airlines canceled flights to and from Israel’s main international airport on Tuesday, after a rocket fired from Gaza struck near the aviation hub in Tel Aviv.
The cancellations highlighted heightened worldwide fears of a rocket hitting a passenger jet in the wake of last week’s downing of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 over rebel-held eastern Ukraine with nearly 300 on board.
That incident underscored the vulnerability of commercial aircraft to surface-to-air missiles, even at cruising altitudes in excess of 30,000 feet.
In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned US airlines from Tel Aviv for at least 24 hours, citing the “potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza.”
“All flight operations to/from Ben Gurion International Airport by US operators are prohibited until further advised,” the FAA said, adding it would update its guidelines on Wednesday.
It was the first time such measures had been taken since the 1990-1991 Gulf war.
Delta, US Airways and United Airlines heeded the FAA order, with Delta diverting a Tel Aviv-bound Boeing 747 with 273 passengers and 17 crew on board to Paris.
London-based easyJet announced that it too would suspend service to and from Tel Aviv for 24 hours, and beyond that would “review its operations to and from Israel on a day by day basis.”
The company said the suspension of the flights was meant to protect “the safety and security of easyJet’s passengers and crew.”
Likewise, Greece’s Aegean Airlines wrote on its Twitter account that as of 0400 GMT Wednesday, it would suspend flights between Athens and Tel Aviv.
The European Aviation Safety Agency recommended that all European airlines avoid Tel Aviv “until further notice.”
Among the other European airlines to announce flight cancellations were Air France, Lufthansa and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.
Jordan carrier Royal Jordanian said on Wednesday it has also suspended flights to Ben Gurion. The announcement by the airline, which operates 20 weekly flights to Tel Aviv, was made in a short statement carried by state-run Petra news agency.
Turkish Airlines also cancelled its flights, a spokesman said on Wednesday.
“We decided to cancel the flights to Tel Aviv yesterday night (Tuesday) for 24 hours due to security reasons,” the spokesman for Turkish Airlines told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Prompting the rush of cancellations was a rocket fired from Gaza which, according to Israeli police, struck north of the airport.
Israel tried to stem the damage, with its transport ministry Yisrael Katz calling American carriers to assure them there was “no security problem” for take-offs and landings at Ben Gurion, a civil aviation authority spokesman said.
“There is no reason for American companies to cancel their flights and yield to terrorism,” Katz was quoted as saying. Israeli flag carrier El Al said it would continue its service without interruption.
Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf nevertheless said it was likely that the FAA flight ban could be extended.
But she denied that a ban on US airliners flying to Tel Aviv and a stark US travel warning were a ploy to push Israel to agree a Gaza truce.
“This is a step we have taken when we’ve felt the situation on the ground warranted it,” she told reporters. Obviously that is a process that we go through, that in no way is policy related or politically related.”
Despite deep links between Americans and Israel, the State Department on Monday warned all US citizens against traveling to Israel, the West Bank or Gaza because of “ongoing hostilities.”
In Europe, Air France said it was canceling its Tel Aviv flights “until further notice.” Lufthansa said it was doing the same for three days. KLM suspended its services, citing “security reasons.”
Lufthansa explained that its decision was made “for the security of passengers and crew” amid the “unstable situation” near the airport.
In Italy, Alitalia canceled its Tel Aviv flights Tuesday and rescheduled its Wednesday morning service to the evening. Spain’s Iberia said it would re-evaluate the situation Wednesday after canceling its evening flight.
In Toronto, Air Canada canceled its service to and from Tel Aviv on Tuesday, adding on Twitter it would “continue to evaluate going forward and update.”
British Airways, however, maintained their flights.
“We continue to operate as normal,” a British Airways spokesman said. “Safety and security are our highest priorities and we continue to monitor the situation closely.”
Delta said it had diverted its Tel Aviv-bound flight after “reports of a rocket or associated debris” near Ben Gurion airport.
“Delta, in coordination with the US Federal Aviation Administration, is doing so to ensure the safety and security of our customers and employees,” it said in a statement.
US Airways meanwhile told AFP in a Twitter exchange it had canceled its flights Tuesday between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, United said: “We’re suspending operations to/from Tel Aviv until further notice. We’ll continue to evaluate the situation.”
Delta, which links Tel Aviv with New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, said it was “working to reaccommodate” passengers on its Paris-diverted flight.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to US Secretary of State John Kerry to lift the ban.
“Netanyahu spoke this evening with … Kerry and asked him to act to restore flights by American airline companies to Israel,” sources in Netanyahu’s office told AFP.
Kerry said the order would be reviewed within in a day and told Netanyahu the ban was solely due to safety concerns, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
A US official said the Obama administration would not “overrule the FAA” on a security precaution but noted the ban would be reviewed after 24 hours.
But US billionaire Michael Bloomberg said that he was flying to Tel Aviv by Israeli carrier El Al to show solidarity with the Zionist state.
“The flight restrictions are a mistake that hands Hamas an undeserved victory and should be lifted immediately,” the former New York mayor wrote on his official Twitter account.
Kerry also personally defied the ban, jetting in from Cairo to Ben Gurion airport to try to broker an end to violence in Gaza, with reporters banned from reporting the trip until his custom Boeing 757 touched down.