Foreign Airlines: Israeli Transport Officials Made Threats Over Grounded Flights

Ministry denies charge stemming from halted service during Gaza conflict.

Airports Authority

Executives at foreign airlines on Tuesday accused Israeli aviation officials of using threatening and inappropriate language after many carriers briefly suspended flights to Israel last month.

The executives spoke about officials employing blunt language and adopting a hostile attitude toward them during the crisis.

A number of foreign airlines, among them Lufthansa of Germany, Swiss, KLM of the Netherlands and Air France, halted service to Ben-Gurion International Airport on July 22. This was on the advice of American and European aviation authorities, after a Hamas rocket hit a house a mile or so from the airport.

Most resumed service within 36 hours, but the suspension caused a panic in Israel out of concern that a key link to the outside world was disrupted. Such an event could ripple across the economy if it lasted long enough.

Israel’s Transportation Ministry denied that any official used threatening language. “To the contrary, Uzi Yitzhaki, the Transportation Ministry director-general, sent a letter to all the foreign airlines operating flights to Israel, expressing appreciation for their continuing to fly regularly during most of the war,” a spokesman said.

The executives defended their decision, saying the airlines’ headquarters made decisions based on reports from their crews, and had to take into account the concerns of labor unions for the safety of their members.

“It’s not so obvious [that] the airlines, which are businesses, will keep on flying if there is a danger posed to passengers, crew and the plane,” said one executive at a foreign airline, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The executive recalled the 2002 attacks on an Israeli jet taking off from Mombasa in Kenya: “When a shoulder-mounted missile was fired at an Arkia passenger plane in Kenya, Israel halted all flights there on the grounds that it wasn’t safe.”

The executives played down the potential damage, however, noting that only 40% of the air-passenger traffic to and from Israel is carried by foreign airlines. Today, they are losing money because of the downturn in tourism, yet they are keeping to their schedules.

“We are flying today at 70% capacity instead of 90% as we should be during the summer peak season on routes to Israel and back," the foreign-airline executive said. "Even so, we’re continuing to fly to Israel and keeping the air link to Ben-Gurion open.”

The executives also cited the language used by members of the Knesset Economics Committee last week, some of whom called for punishing the foreign airlines.