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Austrian Airlines is selling tickets for early 2007 even though it has yet to secure approval from the Civil Aviation Authority to operate all 14 weekly flights on its Vienna-Ben Gurion line, TheMarker learned yesterday. Should the approval not be granted, hundreds of passengers who already bought tickets could find themselves grounded, while the company could suffer significant losses.

The carrier's winter schedule, which went into effect this month and will last through the end of March, is at the center of a battle between the company and the CAA at the Transportation Ministry. Austrian Airlines Israel CEO Eli Messer claims he filed a request with the CAA in September to continue operating its 14 weekly flights through the winter season as it had done during the summer.

Messer asserts he never received a reply from the CAA until two days before the winter schedule took effect. The Transportation Ministry counters Austrian Airlines is trying to present a fait d'accomplis. The CAA has sought to find out whether there's justification for operating so many flights, the ministry added.

The ministry approved Austrian Airline's schedule through the end of the year so as not to inconvenience passengers who already bought tickets, and in order to buy time to look into the matter and decide whether to approve the request.

Messer acknowledged that all the carrier's winter flights appear in its reservations system. If Austrian Airlines is forced to cancel flights, it will take some time to reschedule those going back to Israel, and tourists who ordered tickets may be forced to remain abroad. Messer said over half the Vienna-Ben Gurion passenger traffic is foreign tourists. El Al, which does code sharing with Austrian Airlines, stands to benefit should the CAA not approve all the carrier's weekly winter flights. El Al operates five weekly flights to Vienna.