The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) downgraded Israel's aviation safety standard rating to that of Third World countries this weekend, in a move that carries dire consequences for Israeli airlines and seriously damages Israel's international status.

The FAA moved Israel from Category 1 to Category 2, following an assessment last July, the FAA reported in a statement released Friday. The rating, given by the FAA's International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program, is not related to security issues, but rather to standard safety matters.

The reason for the change in status is flight safety problems and oversight issues that have not yet been solved, at Ben-Gurion International Airport among others.

The assessments are not an indication of whether individual air carriers are safe or unsafe. Rather, they determine whether civil aviation authorities are meeting international safety standards. The Israel Air Pilots Association has blamed the government for the reclassification.

In addition to damaging Israel's international image, the move will also restrict the activity of Israeli airlines in the U.S. Airlines from Category 2 countries are not authorized to fly any new routes inside the U.S., which means El Al's activity in America will be frozen until Israel regains its Category 1 status.

Additionally, El Al and Israel's other airlines will be blocked from changing airplane models or adding new ones to their U.S. routes. They will also face stricter supervision in the U.S., including more frequent and surprise inspections - which may delay flights and harm customer service.

It will also make flights to the U.S. more expensive for Israeli airlines, which might translate into higher ticket prices. This is in part because the reclassification will nullify code-sharing agreements El Al has with American counterparts.

Finally, the redefinition could cause Canada and the European Union, as well as other countries, to take similar measures.

The Category 2 rating is given to countries that lack the laws and regulations necessary to oversee air carriers in keeping with international standards, or whose civil aviation authorities do not meet international standards in one or more areas, such as technical expertise, personnel training, record keeping or inspection procedures, an FAA report said.

All countries with air carriers that fly to the United States must adhere to the safety standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations agency that establishes international standards and recommended practices for aircraft operations and maintenance.

According to the FAA's report, Israel's civil aviation authority is attempting to address the problems in its aviation safety oversight systems and make sure these systems fully comply with ICAO standards.

Israel maintained a Category 1 rating from November 1995 until now. Other Category 2 countries include Honduras and Haiti, as well as European nations like Bulgaria and Ukraine.

The Israel Air Pilots Association has blamed the Transportation Ministry for Israel's poor flight safety ranking, and asked the government to adhere to its obligations and raise its involvement in assuring Israeli flight safety.

"The drop in Israel's ranking comes from mistakes by the Civilian Aviation Authority, and is expected to harm in particular Israeli aviation companies and their employees, first and foremost the pilots," Captain Boaz Hativa, head of the Israel Air Pilots Association, told Haaretz yesterday.

Hativa also called for the government to get involved in implementing safety suggestions by Israeli aviation companies.