An air disaster was narrowly averted Saturday afternoon when an Iberia passenger plane came dangerously close to a Cargo Air Lines jet as the two aircraft were preparing to land at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
The near-collision occurred as both planes were approaching the airspace above Israel's seashore, beginning their landing procedures. The Iberia plane then unexpectedly dipped to within 3,000 feet of the cargo jet. An air traffic controller spotted the situation and instructed the Spanish airliner to change course.
Sources familiar with the incident said it appeared to reflect simple human error on the part of the Iberia crew, explaining that had the two planes come too close to one another, an anti-collision system would have alerted the pilots to the jets' potentially dangerous proximity.
The incident comes just two months after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration lowered Israel's air safety rating to category 2, a level generally assigned to developing countries.
A senior Israeli aviation official: "Since Israel's rating was lowered, no significant action has been taken to correct the air safety situation. A new administration has been created within the Civil Aviation Authority, called Tevel [an acronym for 'safe aviation for Israel'] but that's it. A large-scale air tragedy in Israel is just a matter of time."
This is not the first time Iberia aircraft have been involved in safety breaches in Israel's skies. In February 2007, one of its passenger jets nearly collided with an El-Al aircraft as both planes were preparing to land at Ben-Gurion. Disaster was averted when each plane swerved from its corridor.
Also, in August 2007, an Iberia jet prepared to land at a closed runway at Ben-Gurion, but air traffic controllers instructed its pilots to land at the correct landing strip.
Haaretz has learned that Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu's "first 100 days" [governing] team intends to draft an aviation bill to improve air safety, and to that end met last week with Civil Aviation Authority chief Giora Rom.
The meeting came on the heels of Rom's earlier meeting with the heads of El Al and Arkia airlines, who lamented that the lower safety rating had struck a severe blow to their companies' business.
Rom spoke with Netanyahu's envoys about the challenges facing Israel's air industry and the Civil Administration's plans for meeting them. He said a delegation headed by Tevel director Capt. Rami Liebling had just returned from a working meeting with FAA officials in Washington on Israel's safety rating.
At that meeting, a press release was drafted on a program to help Israel return to a category-1 rating. The American advisers told their guests that such a goal required additional Finance Ministry funding, to complement that provided by the Civil Aviation Administration.
Meanwhile, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that Israel would return to a category 1 FAA rating by the end of this year. Mofaz told a Knesset hearing that when he entered his post in 2006, he found that air safety standards were decades behind those of much of the Western world.
Mofaz called the decision to lower Israel's safety rating a mere "formality," noting that safety standards in the country had "never been" of the highest order.
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