U.S. Flights to and From Israel Face Major Disruption Following Missile Attacks From Gaza

As U.S. carriers cancel most scheduled flights for this week, travel agent warns that religious travelers should expect to spend another week in Israel due to Shabbat, Shavuot holiday

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Rockets fired from Gaza toward the center of Israel last night.
Rockets fired from Gaza toward the center of Israel last night.Credit: ANAS BABA - AFP

The barrage of missiles launched from the Gaza Strip at central Israel is severely disrupting the flight schedule at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport.

As more than 1,100 missiles targeted the center of the country, Israel's Civil Aviation Authority announced on Thursday that all commercial flights arriving at Ben-Gurion International Airport will be redirected to Ramon Airport in Eilat.

Departures from Ben-Gurion International Airport, however, will continue as scheduled, as well as landings of cargo flights.

This came after the authority took the unusual step of shuttering all activity to and from Israel’s main airport, with all incoming flights being diverted to Cyprus on Tuesday for a few hours.

However, there were major disruptions in travel between Israel and the United States, with the rocket fire causing the four carriers flying routes from the U.S. – El Al, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines – to cancel their flights on Tuesday night from various U.S. cities to Israel. 

Due to the “ripple effect” of having no planes in Israel, together the expectation of continued rocket fire into Israel in the evenings, with no cease-fire on the horizon, the U.S. carriers canceled most of their flights from Israel to the United States for the remainder of the week. This was due to the lack of planes, along with concerns about the high costs of more last-minute airport closures and the need to reroute future incoming flights to Cyprus or cancel flights at the last minute if rocket fire resumes. 

United Airlines, the carrier that travels between the two countries most frequently, announced the cancellation of seven flights scheduled through Friday, saying that all change fees would be waived. 

An EL AL spokesman said no future flights had yet been canceled. While the airline plans to continue operating according to schedule, future changes and cancellations were possible, the spokesman said.

The airline released a statement saying it would offer vouchers for cancellations, waive change fees for customers who want to adjust their flight date and that it would “freeze” a ticket for an alternate date or destination, and that tickets changed to an alternate flight departing before or on May 31 will have price differences waived.  

Part of the grounded El Al fleet at Ben-Gurion Airport last year due to the pandemic.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

Mark Feldman, CEO of Ziontours and a director of Diesenhaus travel agency, said he is advising his clients in Israel – particularly Orthodox Jews who are observant and cannot fly over the Sabbath or the upcoming Shavuot holiday on Sunday and Monday – to be prepared to spend up to an extra week in the country.

Despite El Al’s assurances, Feldman said he was doubtful there would be many flights departing Israel for the United States in coming days. 

“Unfortunately, this is a lot like COVID-19 in that I can’t tell people when this will end,” he said. “The silver lining in all of this is that there is less to cancel” because of reduced travel due to the pandemic. 

In addition to the relatively few number of flights in and out of Israel compared to normal years, “because tourists are not here, the planes are not that full,” he said. “There are no huge cancellations of Birthright groups or Christian pilgrims or Jewish federation missions.” 

During the day on Tuesday, numerous flights continued to depart and arrive as scheduled between Israel and Europe, between Ben-Gurion Airport and Eilat, and the new routes between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Some flights, however, were canceled and all of the flights scheduled to depart after dark – 7 P.M. and later, the period of time when missile activity was anticipated – were labeled “NOT FINAL” in the airport schedule. 

The Israeli Pilot’s Union tweeted Wednesday that the reason for the hours-long closure of Ben-Gurion the previous evening was for fear of debris from blown-up Gazan rockets falling on the runway.

“These fragments can cause the aircraft tires to explode on takeoff/landing, tire disintegration and severe residual damage to the fuel tanks and systems in the aircraft,” the union explained. 

The deserted Arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion Airport earlier this year.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

As international flights shift due to security concerns, an additional complication for travelers in the coronavirus era is the requirement to undergo a COVID-19 PCR test within a 72-hour window of flying to or from Israel. That requirement is not being adjusted due to the security situation and anyone whose flight is delayed or rescheduled will be required to retake the test within that time frame. 

In addition, noncitizens who are first-degree relatives of Israelis who have received certificates to enter the country will not be allowed to enter at a later time if a delay in their trip pushes them past the expiration date on their permission form. A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority said overseas travelers will “have to renew the permit.” 

In 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, it only took a single rocket fired from Gaza falling about a mile from Ben-Gurion Airport to trigger cancellations by major carriers – after the Federal Aviation Administration ordered U.S. airlines not to fly to Israel for 24 hours because of the “potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza.” The State Department also warned Americans at the time not to travel to Israel.

The three U.S. carriers with scheduled service to Israel – Delta, United Airlines and US Airways – subsequently canceled all of their flights, and were later joined by Air Canada and a number of Western European airlines.

At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally lobbied then-Secretary of State John Kerry, asking for a reversal of the decision to suspend flights. The ban was ultimately lifted after 36 hours. The only overseas carrier that flew to Israel throughout the 2014 war was Egypt’s Air Sinai.

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