Earlier today the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Notice To Airmen (NOTAM) that for a period of 24-hours U.S. airlines could not operate to or from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel. The FAA’s NOTAM cities a “Hazardous situation created by the armed convict in Israel and Gaza.” While the NOTAM does not mention a rocket fired from Gaza landing in close proximity to the airport, the FAA cites that as a factor in the issuing of the NOTAM which lead to U.S. airlines canceling flights, a Delta flight diverting to Paris and multiple European airlines canceling flights for a period of 36 to 72 hours.
But … what is really behind the FAA’s NOTAM prohibiting U.S. airlines from operating to and from Israel’s primary international airport? The hazardous situation in Israel has raged on and off for years and the situation will not be resolved within 24-hours when the FAA is set to review its decision to prohibit airlines from operating to and from the airport. The last time the FAA had suspended U.S. airlines from flying to Israel was during the First Gulf War in 1991.
Following the FAA NOTAM the Israeli Civil Aviation Authority issued a statement saying “Ben Gurion Airport is safe and completely guarded and there is no reason whatsoever that American companies would stop their flights and hand terror a prize.”
Adding to the validity of the Israeli Civil Aviation Authority‘s statement today, various threat assessments from within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) throughout the day showed the threat to aviation security surrounding aircraft arriving at and departing from Tel Aviv had not significantly changed, and revealed no detailed change in a threat assessment of the actual airport its self
The reason for the suspension of flights to and from Tel Aviv is a political reaction to a Surface to Air Missile shooting Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 out of the sky over Ukraine. The White House cannot act on the downing of Flight 17, as the U.S. has no real stake in that incident, but it cannot seem to be soft on protecting U.S. interests in the area of aviations security and the lives of Americans flying on aircraft around the world.
However there are significant differences between what is going on in Israel and in the skies over Ukraine. Malaysia Flight 17 was at cruising altitude, 33,000 feet and shot down by a guided missile that had locked onto its target and had the ability to travel to 72,000 feet. The rockets Hamas is firing at Israel have no guidance system, have no real altitude, are not heat seeking and are intended to hit ground targets.
The real risk to U.S. aircraft at Ben Gurion International Airport is being struck while on the ground, which is highly unlikely. Hamas is lobbing “dumb bombs” just hoping to hit something, at times with such poor accuracy they are landing their own rockets within their own borders.
Aircraft fly in and out of airports with very high threat levels regularly, such as Baghdad, Islamabad, Kabul and there are measures pilots can take to avoid being hit by rockets and bullets. Aircraft can make a tight spiral approach while landing, or a steep climb on take off, airports change runways so those firing on rockets can’t keep a fix position on a target.
Nothing has really changed in terms of security risks for commercial aircraft except the political ramifications following Malaysia Flight 17. Had that incident not occurred, there would be no suspension of U.S. airliners, and now European airlines, from flying to and from Tel Aviv as they have continued to do during the peak times of conflict, when rockets have landed close to the airport before.
Aviation security has many factors, and those factors can change very quickly given real time situations, but should the FAA make a decision based on a hostile environment for just 24-hours when the DHS’s immediate internal threat level for the airport has not changed … and the situation within the country has not really changed that much in years?
I very infrequently use the term Security Theater, finding it to be over used and often misused … but today I say this to the FAA … take a bow.