Airlines Weigh Legal Action Against Israel Over Tainted Fuel Crisis

Cost to airlines of last week's canceled flights due to fuel contamination could reach tens of millions of dollars.

Foreign and domestic airlines are considering taking legal action against the state to recover their financial losses from the suspension of aircraft refueling at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Thursday.

Refueling was halted after jet fuel in the airports' tanks was found to be tainted with a still-unknown contaminant, bringing all air traffic within and out of the country to a halt until Friday. Industry sources estimate airline losses in the tens of millions of dollars.

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"We suffered serious financial damage," a senior figure in the aviation industry said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We had to cancel flights, to put up passengers in hotels, to pay landing fees and for fuel purchased in airports abroad. Who'll reimburse us for those expenses? We are definitely weighing a damage suit against the state."

Of the 23 outgoing flights that were held up Thursday, 11 remained on the ground Friday morning. In some cases the flights had to be scratched because their crews had already reached their work limits and had to rest before they could fly again. El Al, for example, was forced to cancel 20 domestic and international flights as a result of the refueling suspension.

While Ben-Gurion's flight schedule is mostly back to normal, it will take several more days for all of the changes necessitated by the crisis to work themselves out.

When the fuel contamination was identified on Friday, untainted supplies were trucked in from the strategic reserves in Ashdod and Pi Glilot. Tanker trucks were sent to Ben-Gurion so that aircraft could take on enough jet fuel to get them to nearby airports - including Larnaca, Cyprus, and Amman, Jordan - where they could fill up and continue to their scheduled destinations.

Some airlines, such as Lufthansa, coped with the challenge posed by Ben-Gurion's lack of fuel by leaving the cargo hold empty on incoming flights and filling up with sufficient fuel as to obviate the need to take on more fuel in Israel. That, of course, only worked with flights that left their airport of origin after the refueling ban was put in place on Thursday.

The process of swapping the tainted fuel in the airport's tanks with clean fuel from the state's strategic reserves is expected to continue today.

Aviation officials are waiting for the results of tests being carried out at a German laboratory on samples of the contaminated fuel. The samples were sent out Friday morning.

Airport manager Shmuel Kandel, meanwhile, says that responsibility for the economic damage caused by the contamination incident lies with Aviation Assets, the company that supplies fuel to the airport.

"The Israel Aviation Authority didn't sustain any monetary damage apart from having to lay on more employees to deal with this complex situation," Kandel said. The agency has not yet issued an estimate of the economic damage caused by the flight cancellations.

Kandel said that because the economic damage was a result of the fuel contamination, and Aviation Assets is responsible for supplying the fuel, it is therefore responsible for the damage. "It's obvious that the airlines took a hit, but I don't have the final number yet," Kandel said. He did not dismiss the possibility that passengers or airlines might sue the Israel Aviation Authority in the wake of the incident.