Should the People of Israel Be Afraid to Fly?

Amos Lapidot, a former commander of the Israel Air Force and head of a committee tasked with examining civil aviation safety in Israel says there is reason to worry.

Maj. Gen. (Res. ) Amos Lapidot, a former commander of the Israel Air Force, was appointed in April 2007 to head a committee tasked with examining civil aviation safety, by then deputy prime minister and transportation minister Shaul Mofaz. The panel was also asked to propose ways of correcting any deficiencies. In August 2007, the committee presented an interim brief and in December of that year, a full report. In his paper released Monday detailing the grave state of aviation in Israel, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss drew heavily from the work of the committee.

Should the people of Israel be afraid to fly nowadays?

Moti Milrod

It is good for people to understand that there is always some risk involved in flying, but I think that we should be worried. At the same time, what is happening now is that Israeli aviation is going in an upward direction, in the positive sense of the word. From the State Comptroller's report that was published recently one can get the impression that the situation is continuing to deteriorate and nothing is progressing, but it is not so. There has been progress. They are working at it. The trend is positive. But it takes a long time.

That is precisely one of the problems that the state comptroller's report deals with.

I can't testify about improvements in the organizational system headed by the Transportation Ministry and the Civil Aviation Authority. But until a few years ago, the situation was really catastrophic, so it has improved. I am not neutral in this respect. To a large extent, this is thanks to the work we did in our committee and of course also the visits and inspection carried out by international bodies, especially the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] and the U.S. FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] - but it takes time.

The state comptroller warns that some of your recommendations have not been implemented. Are you surprised?

I don't know what was not implemented. I know that recommendations were made right at the very beginning regarding very important matters, especially the organization of upgrading the Civil Aviation Authority, but not only were we not given assistance by the Transportation Ministry it even torpedoed some of our most critical demands, for example about the authority's need for freedom to deal with matters under its auspices. ... It is true that the ministry can't decide alone, without the Civil Service Commissioner and the Finance Ministry, but the Transportation Ministry did not do a thing until I went personally to the treasury. After I received understanding and willingness to help from the treasury, I continued and went to the Justice Ministry and suddenly things started to move.

Still, Israel's safety ranking was lowered to 2, which is characteristic of underdeveloped countries.

That worries me today too. Not because they lowered our ranking but because of the actual situation. I have no doubt that if they had gotten down to work immediately after we issued our warning in 2007, they would have dealt with the really urgent matters such as job slots and inspection. Perhaps they would not have finished by this year, but the American FAA would have accompanied us, seen that there was improvement and that work was being done, and there is no doubt they would not have lowered our safety ranking. I want to stress that the transportation minister, Shaul Mofaz, who appointed the committee I headed, approved all the recommendations both in the interim and the final reports. But after he approved them he did not look inside his ministry or examine whether his people or the director general were following through on them. I wrote letters, quite a few, of course; I met with the minister and the director general, once every few weeks, and that was it. The people in the ministry made a mockery out of the the minister's decisions. The final outcome was that all the actions were torpedoed.

When do you think we will go back to being ranked a 1?

I know that the head of the civil aviation authority, Giora Rom, has given top priority to everything connected with the issue and has also finally brought in new people. I am not familiar with the day-to-day activities but I hope that as soon as possible they will put Israel back in category 1. When Rom took over the job, he spoke of a time span of about a year, but since then two years have gone by.

In his report, the state comptroller wrote at length on the division of air space between military and civil aircrafts, and he puts the blame on the air force for not giving the civil aviation freedom. As someone who was commander of the air force, what do you think?

The air force is in a state of superiority because throughout our history, most of the air space has been used by, and controlled by, the air force. That will be the situation in the future too. Civil aviation is one thing and the air force is another. Hundreds of its planes fly in training areas, both at great heights and in horizontal space. But there certainly has to be a revision in this respect. Almost from the beginning, I initiated ties with the air force. ... A process was created whereby matters were discussed and an attempt was made to solve problems. I think that was still not enough, including technical matters that are connected to the units dealing with regional control. I recommended - and there are examples of this in the world, especially in Europe and the U.S. where it is also crowded and where there are various airports next to each other, even military and civilian - that there be combined air control, that is to say that one place controls all air activity in the region. I suggest the establishment of a joint administrative center for the army and civil aviation that will control air traffic. I recommended, toward the end of my job as head of the public committee and without going into details, that the issue be examined more thoroughly. I recommended that this should include a trip by a joint team from the air force and civil aviation to other parts of the world to study the issue from close up. The center does not need to be in the same place physically. For example, part can be in Tel Nof and the other part at Ben-Gurion since the technology makes it possible to be as if in the same room. Everyone will see and hear the same thing. No one took this matter any further, and I recommend it once again now.

The comptroller tackles the fight over authority between Giora Rom and the chief investigator, Yitzhak Raz, which is endangering the way in which aviation safety is dealt with. What's your take?

International treaties that deal with the investigation of air accidents dictate how things have to work and what the relationship should be. In Israeli aviation, one must cling to the anchor of the international regulations. According to these regulations, the moment the investigation by the chief investigator is over, there are always lessons to be learned and conclusions. The director general of the transportation ministry at the time thought that he could do whatever he pleased because he was king of the ministry, and he gave instructions to the chief investigator not to publish reports without getting permission from him. I think they have stopped that now. I believe the investigations by the chief investigator are good and they have to be appreciated. As for the arguments between the head of the authority and the chief investigator, I don't have a completely clear position.

The comptroller states in his report that the independence of the chief accidents investigator is being restricted.

That is true. But I don't want to get into personal issues. I try to restrict myself to professional matters. The budget of the chief investigator is simply appalling. It is ridiculous. If he manages to do anything it is thanks to volunteers, investigators who come and help - not from his budget - some of them on a voluntary basis.

Does the comptroller's report leave out any aviation safety matters that you feel should have been included?

Yes, the improvement of air safety between military aviation and civil aviation, especially with the overcrowding that exists in the center of the country. It can be said that from Gedera to Hadera, and especially from Netanya to Rehovot, including the Dan region, it is very overcrowded. There are six airfields; the chief ones are Ben-Gurion International Airport, Tel Nof, Sde Dov in Tel Aviv, Herzliya, and Hatzor. It is very, very crowded and there are separate administrations - the civil aviation is controlled by the Civil Aviation Authority from Ben-Gurion while the military aviation is controlled by the air fields and the air force.