As a host of foreign airlines briefly barred their planes from Ben-Gurion International Airport last week, Israeli government officials scrambled to offer Ovda Airport deep in the Negev as an alternative.
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The effort was chaotic and poorly planned. The Ovda terminal was overcrowded and operations suffered constant disruptions as the military airport opened its runway to the civil flights. Hundreds of travelers who were bused to Ovda ended up waiting hours to board their flights. A senior travel official described the atmosphere as reminiscent of a “Third World airport.”
But, as TheMarker has learned, it shouldn’t have been like this. As far back as 2009, officials had devised a plan called Silver Wings to move Ben-Gurion operations to Ovda in case of an emergency. The plan was updated as recently as May 2013.
But the plan was never put into effect when the time came last week, on the grounds that Ben-Gurion continued some of its operations. Yesterday, the Transportation Ministry said it had formed a committee – headed by its director general, Uzi Yitzhaki – to investigate why the emergency plan went wrong. The Israel Airports Authority began its own probe last week.
The plan called for restricting the number of planes using Ovda because its facilities, in particular its fire and rescue teams, are very limited.
Ovda is officially a military airport, but it is also used for civilian flights bringing tourists to the southern resort city of Eilat.
Although the airport has facilities to park only four planes, reports on Thursday – the peak crisis day – said that there were six jets parked at the airport, while three others were forced to wait on runways. Ovda’s terminal can only handle 600 to 800 passengers at a time, but at one point on Thursday five planes were waiting to load 1,400 passengers.
Under the Silver Wings directive, incoming passengers were supposed to be offered three alternatives for leaving Ovda – a bus service directly to Tel Aviv; a bus service to Dimona or Be’er Sheva, where they could then pick up a train to their final destination; or a bus service to Eilat, in order to board a domestic flight.
But those options were only offered to passengers at a late stage, when the situation had become chaotic and the Transportation Ministry and IAA had stepped in.
An executive at Classic Air, which represents the Italian carrier Neos, described the chaos: “Flights that were scheduled for Verona and Milan stayed on the tarmac because Ovda Airport didn’t have the equipment to service hundreds of travelers who had been told to arrive a day earlier,” said the executive, who asked not to be named.
In explaining the failure to put Silver Wings into effect, the Transportation Ministry noted that conditions last week were not in keeping with those delineated in the emergency plan because, in fact, Ben-Gurion airport never closed.
“Ben-Gurion continued to operate without any disruption during the 36 hours in which U.S., and later European, airlines refused to fly,” a spokesman explained. “During these hours, 27 foreign airlines were operating and more than 60,000 passengers passed through the airport.”
Officials decided last Wednesday to make Ovda available to foreign airlines, many of whom had suspended flights to Ben-Gurion – Israel’s only major international airport – after a Hamas rocket struck a house in Yehud, a mile or so north of the airport, the day before.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued an advisory urging airlines to avoid Israel, but rescinded it within 48 hours. Although the Transportation Ministry said there was no reason to put Silver Wings into effect, it conceded that Ovda operations were marked by many “difficulties,” and that “organizational failures” were revealed in the IAA’s preparations.
Under the emergency plans, Shmuel Zakai, the director of Ben-Gurion, was responsible for implementing Silver Wings, in coordination with Yaakov Ganot, the head of the IAA. They were supposed to act in the event that landings and takeoffs at Ben-Gurion were halted for more than 12 hours, by transferring as many flights as possible to Ovda.
In the first 12 hours, Ovda was supposed to operate using its existing staff and equipment, after which Ben-Gurion staff and equipment were supposed to supplement it. That never happened last week.