With heavy fog blanketing Israel on Monday night, Ben-Gurion International Airport was forced to shut down for eight hours. Incoming flights were directed to alternate airfields and flight schedules were heavily disrupted. Captain Dror Gorelik is the chief pilot of El Al Airlines and the director of the company's flight operations.
Israel's flight connections to the rest of the world were cut off this week for some eight hours because of fog. How does that happen?
Weather prediction is far from an exact science. Aircraft are totally dependent on weather conditions for their operation. There are instruments inside planes and landing systems at airports that make it possible for planes to operate under defined weather conditions. In this case, fog restricted visibility. In order for the planes to continue to operate, there must be - both inside the planes and at the airports - guidance systems for landing that meet the standards needed under such weather conditions.
Unfortunately, Ben-Gurion Airport is not yet equipped with these advanced systems, which many of the chief airports in the world do have - an instrument landing system for planes (known as ILS ) that makes it possible for an airplane to approach a landing without needing to see the runway until the final stages of the approach.
To the best of my knowledge, Ben-Gurion does have an ILS system, is that not so?
That is correct. Ben-Gurion does indeed have ILS equipment, but it is restricted to visibility conditions of no less than 550 meters under conditions where the bottom line of the cloud is 200 feet. In the rest of the world, equipment today allows landings up until a cloud base of 50 feet and in effect almost without any visibility restriction.
So why doesn't Ben-Gurion Airport have this equipment?
As I understand things, the equipment at Ben-Gurion from the technical and technological points of view does have the said capabilities, but it has not received a permit from the authorized flight authorities for these parameters and has not been calibrated for these parameters - for reasons known to others, not to me.
At the same time, it must be said that the number of days out of the year in which Ben-Gurion Airport sees weather conditions of this type is quite limited, especially in comparison with other airports around the world where such weather conditions are common and the need for suitable equipment is acute. Clearly these are issues of cost-effectiveness.
How much does a system of that kind cost?
I imagine it is quite expensive and the reason for that is the very high level of reliability that is required of it.
How much financial damage do you estimate was caused by the flight disruptions Monday?
That is difficult for me to assess numerically. However Monday night was extremely exceptional. I can't recall an event of this kind in the history of El Al. The cost of disrupted flight schedules, the need to take care of passengers who are late for connecting flights, the surplus costs of fuel and the use of additional flight crews and cabin attendants all add up to a significant cost for the airways.
Why was it necessary to reroute 28 flights to airports outside of Israel?
To my regret, we don't have an alternate airport within Israel's borders that is suitable. There are several reasons for this and once again they are known only to Israel's authorized flight authorities. From the perspective of the airline companies in general, and El Al among them as the main user, this is a serious handicap that costs us time and money. We have expressed our position on this issue to the aviation authorities more than once or twice.
Until recently, the Ovda airport in the Negev served as an alternative to Ben-Gurion. Why was it not possible to use it this time?
About a year ago, the Civil Aviation Authority decided it was no longer a suitable alternative to Ben-Gurion. As I understand, the reasons for this were related to the caliber of the instruments at the airport; the staff there, such as civil air traffic controllers; the fire-fighting equipment, which is not legally suitable for civil aviation; and issues between civil aviation and the air force with regard to maintaining the field and the runways for parallel civil and military flights.
Just last week, Giovanni Bisignani, the director general of the International Air Transport Association, criticized Israel for such problems during his visit here. Did you think of asking to use the Ovda airport in an emergency, like this week's foggy night?
At the beginning of the night, when we realized where the matter was leading, we sent a special request to the authorities but we were given a negative answer.
When the planes were redirected to other airports abroad, did they have sufficient fuel? And were there any planes that almost ran out of their fuel reserves before reaching those airports?
We were prepared in advance for the flights that took off after we knew how bad the weather had turned. These planes were given additional fuel so that they could wait over Ben-Gurion Airport [for a break in the weather] to land. In actual fact, this helped only a relatively small number of flights.
How does one set up a new flight schedule after such chaos?
Fourteen of our flights landed at secondary fields abroad. The average time of delay in arrival at Ben-Gurion was around five hours. At El Al's control headquarters, alongside the activities involved in bringing back those planes that had landed at secondary airports, work was also done in cooperation with the commercial branches to set up a new flight schedule and close the gaps as soon as possible.
In fact, by last night we were able to put the schedule back in place, except for perhaps two flights of our largest planes that will leave this morning instead of at night. Our guiding principle is to contain the general damage as much as possible. The coordination of planes is carried out by the control branch of El Al, with the cooperation of the maintenance branches.
Have you prepared for the possibility that this phenomenon will strike again?
There is a fear that it will be repeated to a lesser or greater degree. The weather forecast for [last night] was very similar to that predicted for Monday night. Because of that, we held a number of consultations and we decided to beef up certain departments to provide for greater flexibility in real time.
In addition, we have arranged for additional fuel, which will make it possible to remain in waiting over Ben-Gurion Airport for a longer time, which will help us utilize any short breaks in the weather for landing.