Probe: Did Israir Hide Plane Damage?

The Transportation Ministry is investigating whether an Israir plane that flew from Eilat to Ben-Gurion International Airport took off with a small hole in its frame, a flaw which could have caused the plane to explode on its next scheduled flight to Rome.

Ministry official Yitzhak Raz has been charged with checking whether Israir knowingly refrained from reporting the existence of the hole, which was allegedly spotted by mechanics when it arrived at Ben-Gurion, and whether Israir officials tried to whitewash the affair afterward.

According to the suspicions, the hole was caused by a collision with a mobile air-stairs vehicle at Eilat's airport, which is operated by Israir.

Raz told Haaretz that air pressure differences at heights above 10,000 feet, which flights between Israel and Italy exceed, could have put serious pressure on the plane's body and eventually caused an explosion. He said it is possible that Israir acted correctly by allowing the plane to fly from Eilat to Ben-Gurion, if the airline directed the pilot to flow at a low altitude in order to avoid putting pressure on the plane's frame. "I hope their risk assessment was right," Raz said. "I received the report and will have to make a number of inquiries in order to ascertain whether Israir imposed the right restrictions."

Meanwhile, Israir opened its own investigation into the incident, sending a number of its inspectors to Eilat.

"We are treating this incident seriously as we do every air safety issue and we shall draw conclusions," Yisrael Ben-Haim, Israir's director general, said. "Whether it happened in the air or on the ground, it should not have occurred." Ben-Haim said that at no point were any passengers or the plane itself in danger. "The hole was in an area that could sustain outside damage, next to the door where the structure is stronger," he said.

Kobi Mor, the director general of the Israel Airports Authority, which operates Ben-Gurion International Airport, said his company's inspection of the plane had not concluded.

He stressed that the Eilat ground crew are not under the authority of his company and that Israir is responsible for any damage to the aircraft.