U.S. Flights Returning to Tel Aviv, but Israeli Tourism Will Feel Turbulence for Long Time

People will see the two-day FAA airline ban as a warning, says U.S. travel guru.

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United Airlines' departure board, with the canceled flight to Tel Aviv, July 23, 2014.
United Airlines' departure board, with the canceled flight to Tel Aviv, July 23, 2014.Credit: Reuters

NEW YORK – The two-day flight ban imposed on American carriers flying to Tel Aviv is likely to have a serious long-term impact on Israel’s tourism business, travel experts say, even though the Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on Thursday morning. Flights from the United States are set to resume Friday.

The FAA had been “operating from an abundance of caution, especially because of the Malaysia Airlines flight” shot down over Ukraine on July 17, said CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg. He said that U.S. and European airlines canceled flights to and from Israel because of “their own liability and insurance. The war-risk insurance companies that write these policies [for the airlines] are dramatically altering their policies as we speak. It’s way beyond eastern Ukraine here.

“Right now, an airline flying into Tel Aviv might not be covered if their airplane is damaged or destroyed by a missile,” said Greenberg, who may be America’s best-known travel maven. A winner of multiple Emmy awards, Greenberg has been to Israel more than 40 times. A year ago he filmed “Israel: The Royal Tour,” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which premiered in March and continues to air on public television stations in the United States.

The new approach signaled by the two-day grounding and the FAA’s directive “could have serious ramifications around the world,” Greenberg said. It would have “a serious impact, a dramatic impact, on where we fly and how we fly.”

Asked if the FAA’s move was related to the Malaysia Airlines attack, agency spokesperson Lynn Lunsford, in an email interview, said it wasn’t. In a statement Wednesday, before the ban was lifted, the FAA said it was “working closely with the Government of Israel to review the significant new information they have provided and determine whether potential risks to U.S. civil aviation are mitigated so the agency can resolve concerns as quickly as possible. The agency instituted the flight prohibition Tuesday, July 22, in response to a rocket strike that landed approximately one mile from the airport.”

The FAA statement added, “The agency’s responsibility is to act with an abundance of caution in protecting those traveling on U.S. airlines.”

Though the flight ban has been lifted, “the ripple effect on the tourism economy will be enormous,” warned Greenberg. People “are already booking away not just from Israel and Ukraine, they’re booking away from the entire region. The impact is not just on the airlines, it’s the hotels, tour operators, restaurants.”

It also provided a headache for American travelers who were booked to fly on U.S. airlines this week. Stand-up comic Ari Teman was supposed to fly Delta to Israel, in time to participate in the “Rocket Shelter Comedy Tour” with three other comedians. He learned that Delta suspended operations to Israel – something it did even before the FAA mandate – from friends. “At first I was so relieved not to have to fly Delta. It may be the only good thing Hamas has accomplished,” joked Teman.

When he called Delta, they offered to connect him with Air France to see if he could get onto one of their flights. “Paris – that’s a safe place for Jews right now,” he added. So he called El Al. He had difficulty getting through, with their phone system down and their website showing no availability. Then he called a friend who works in the travel business, who said he could book him on El Al with a stopover in Madrid.

Teman says he thinks the FAA move seemed “politically motivated. Israel is a much safer airport than many of the airports in conflict territories right now. It’s more likely a [U.S.] State Department tactic to isolate and punish Israel’s economy.” This suggestion was also made by Republican Senator Ted Cruz, the State Department rejecting Cruz’s comments as “ridiculous and offensive.”

El Al spokeswoman Sheryl Stein said the company was flooded with at least quadruple the typical number of calls from people trying to rebook their flights from American carriers to El Al. The Israeli airline currently runs five nonstop flights a day from U.S. cities, carrying close to 2,000 people, and added some flights between Israel and Europe to accommodate people who were stranded.

Last year, 630,000 Americans traveled to Israel, said Haim Gutin, Israel’s consul commissioner for tourism in North America and South America, in an interview with Haaretz. This year, he added, 700,000 Americans were on track to visit Israel. Until now.

The FAA’s directive came as a surprise to the Israeli government, said Gutin. After the last military operation in Gaza – Operation Pillar of Defense, in November-December 2012 – it took about two months for Israel’s tourism business to return to normal, he added.

The American and European airline stoppage to Israel is likely to have a long-lasting impact, said Greenberg, because people view the FAA and airlines’ decisions as warnings. “Whether it’s about Israel or London, they embrace fear, and they’re just not going to go,” Greenberg said. “People tend to circle the wagons and stay home when these things happen.

“When airlines aren’t landing there, it sends a very clear message ... People will remember they canceled. It’s going to take awhile to get back on track.”

The empty arrival lounge of Ben Gurion International airport, near Tel Aviv, is seen following several flight cancellations on July 23, 2014 due to the ongoing the Gaza bloodshed.Credit: AFP

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