Ben-Gurion International Airport - David Bachar - Nov. 16, 2010
Ben-Gurion International Airport early on Nov. 16, 2010. Photo by David Bachar
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Heavy fog around Ben-Gurion International Airport caused serious international and domestic air traffic delays yesterday, affecting thousands of passengers. Israel was cut off by air for about eight hours, with takeoffs and landings and suspended over Monday night until 8 A.M. yesterday.

Though the fog is expected to lift today, the chaos in the flight schedule may continue. Temperatures way above the seasonal average are also expected to persist for the next few days.

The lack of a suitable alternative airport in Israel meant that 28 Israel-bound flights had to land Tuesday night at other airports in the region, such as Paphos and Larnaca in Cyprus, Amman and Cairo. Only yesterday were they allowed to take off again for Israel, after delays of five to seven hours.

"It was a nightmare. It took us 28 hours to get here from South Korea via Thailand and then from Cyprus to Israel, because of the fog. All I want is to get into a taxi and go home," Tamar Melzer, an oboe player in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, told Haaretz. Melzer landed yesterday afternoon at Ben-Gurion with her fellow musicians.

She said their plane had started its descent to land at Ben-Gurion, but could not because of the weather. The plane was then diverted to Larnaca, where the passengers spent another 90 minutes in the plane on the ground before it refueled and returned to Israel.

A passenger on another airplane, Tuvia Erlich, told Haaretz he had been on a Royal Jordanian flight from Bangkok to Amman. "We were supposed to be on the ground in Amman for an hour and a half - which turned into a six-and-a-half hour delay."

Naftali and Marina Shor, from Ashdod, took off Tuesday at 8 P.M. from Vienna on an El Al flight scheduled to land in Israel at half past midnight. "We began our descent, and then suddenly the plane ascended again. We flew to Paphos, where we remained on the plane for about six hours. We took off again for Israel and again we couldn't land and were diverted to Eilat, where we landed. They changed crews and we took off again for Ben-Gurion. This time we landed," they said.

Delays followed one El Al flight into Europe. Flight 315 from Ben-Gurion to Heathrow, which took off more than five hours late due to the fog here, was not permitted to land at Heathrow when it finally arrived - because of fog at the destination.

Passengers on the returning flight to Ben-Gurion, Flight 316, had boarded the aircraft but were unable to take off for the same reason. Travelers complained that no one was taking care of them and that they were not kept informed of the situation.

El Al responded that "all the passengers at Heathrow are being taken care of. The flight will take off as soon as the fog lifts in London."

TA hotels fully booked

The fog also disrupted travel plans for passengers awaiting takeoff. Anna and Eddie Dror, from Eilat, slept on the floor of the terminal Tuesday night, after having to get off their Delta Airlines flight, which could not take off.

"We were sitting in the plane. They brought us water and kept us there until 3:30 A.M. Then they told us we had to deplane. They took us to the terminal and brought us sandwiches, but no one explained to us what was going to happen. We were classified as returning passengers and had to pick up our suitcases - for which we had to wait another hour and a half. We don't know how they work at Ben-Gurion, or why it took so long," they explained.

"At 6 A.M. we lay down on the terminal floor to sleep; that was after they told us to come back at 2 P.M. to start the whole boarding process again," they continued. "We told the ground attendant that we are from Eilat and asked her to arrange a hotel for us in Tel Aviv. She said she called every hotel in Tel Aviv and they were all completely booked."

The Airports Authority media adviser, Ronit Ekstein, told Haaretz: "No alternative airport operates in Israel due to a lack of suitable infrastructure... Transport Minister Yisrael Katz recently made a decision to build up the Timna airport and the Airports Authority is working hard to do so. It will provide the perfect solution to the lack of a suitable alternative airport in Israel."

While Ben-Gurion International Airport does not presently have the necessary instrument landing system, Ekstein said the authority had decided to purchase such a system as part of safety upgrades being done at the airport. The system would allow flights to continue under extreme fog conditions, she said, adding that the system was now going through the approval process at the Civil Aviation Authority.

Responding to the complaints by the Drors, Delta Airlines media adviser Eitan Loewenstein told Haaretz, "In cases of delays due to force majeure, like that which happened because of the fog, the airline is not obligated to make arrangements for passengers' accommodations. However, Delta Airlines representatives at Ben-Gurion tried to help passengers who requested assistance in finding a hotel (not paid for by Delta ). Unfortunately, the fact that the hotels were completely booked made this impossible."

Damp air to droplets

The fog along the coast yesterday was caused by the penetration of cold, damp air about 200 meters above the ground, with a layer of warmer air above it that did not allow the cooler air to dissipate. It therefore turned into droplets - or fog.

Today will be slightly cooler, but the unseasonably hot weather will continue into the weekend and there is no change on the horizon for the beginning of next week.

If the trend does indeed continue, this month will be a record-breaker in terms of heat.

According to the Israel Meteorological Service, figures for the first half of the month show this to be the hottest November since 1941.

The period between August and October was also the hottest on record.