FAA cancellations are almost, but not quite, a knockout blow

Tourists likely to take ‘closure’ of Israel’s airspace very seriously; business people might be more tolerant

People stand in the Delta Airlines terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport July 22, 2014 in New York City after the Federal Aviation Administration halted all flights from the US to Tel Aviv. ( photo credit: Eric Thayer/Getty Images/AFP)
People stand in the Delta Airlines terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport July 22, 2014 in New York City after the Federal Aviation Administration halted all flights from the US to Tel Aviv. ( photo credit: Eric Thayer/Getty Images/AFP)

The Israeli travel industry sustained yet another blow when the US Federal Aviation Agency recommended that American carriers avoid Ben Gurion Airport – but for Israeli business, it’s not quite a knockout blow, according the head of a public relations agency that organizes major international business and trade shows.

“Luckily, there isn’t much going on in July and August, but we do have several major events set for September,” Nachum Donitza said. “If the war keeps on going and Israel becomes synonymous with ‘flights canceled flights because of security risks,’ I’m afraid we could be in for some bad times. But so far, no one that I’ve spoken to is cancelling.”

That’s not the case among tourists. “The last week saw mass cancellations on flights and in hotels, and the FAA decision is probably the nail in the coffin. Who would want to fly into an airport that the top aviation authorities say is dangerous? Even if they lift the ban, the damage is done,” said travel professional Moshe Mizrahi. “At this point, it’s pretty clear that the ‘season’ is shot. When this is over, the airlines and hotels are going to have to do some major work to bring people back here.”

The FAA announcement followed decisions by United Airlines and Delta Airlines to hold off on flights to Israel, in the wake of damage to a house in the town of Yehud – just a few miles from Ben Gurion Airport – by shrapnel from a Hamas-fired rocket. The FAA decision set off a domino effect of flight cancellations, so by Wednesday morning, most of the major US and European carriers had canceled flights until at least Wednesday night or Thursday morning.

The decisions were tempered a bit Wednesday morning, when American carrier US Air said that it would resume flights to Israel. Israeli aviation officials said they were hopeful the FAA would lift its warning after the initial 24-hour warning period expired later Wednesday.

In a radio interview, Uzi Yitzchaki said that there was really no reason for the FAA to relegate Israel to the same status as other no-fly zones, like North Korea, Libya, and Iraq. “We had a long discussion with FAA officials Tuesday night and pointed out that Ben Gurion Airport is perfectly safe,” he said. The fact that a rocket hit a house in Yehud was irrelevant, despite the proximity of the town to the airport. “I can’t go into details of trajectories and defensive measures, but I can promise that what happened in Yehud will not happen to a plane at the airport, or in the air as it lands or takes off.”

The international airport, outside Tel Aviv, is protected by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.

For foreign carriers that want a safer option, the Transportation Ministry has opened Ovda Airport, an upgraded military airfield that handles many international flights to Eilat. It’s a four-hour drive from there to the center of the country. At a press conference Wednesday, Transport Minister Yisrael Katz said that the Ovda airport was ready to accept flights. “We have managed to make arrangements with and between the foreign carriers, and between the Israeli carriers that of course continue to operate, as well as the 20 foreign carriers that are still operating, about 70% of all those who were scheduled to leave on canceled flights were able to leave. We expect that statistic to improve.”

Katz harshly criticized the FAA step, saying it would “hand terror a prize.”

To take up the slack from the sudden cancellations, some passengers transferred from foreign carriers to El Al flights. In a radio interview, El Al CEO David Maimon said that unfortunately, his airline had plenty of resources to accommodate stranded passengers. “We understandably have had a lot of cancellations in recent days, so we have been taking on passengers from canceled flights, and using larger planes to accommodate even more passengers.”

One of the most important missions right now, said Katz, was enabling Israelis abroad – including several thousand people stuck in Turkey, where El Al is not authorized to fly – to return home. “We are arranging with the Turks to fly those Israelis to Greece or Jordan, and we will bring them home from there,” said Maimon. In addition, he said, El Al would continue using Ben Gurion Airport, rejecting the option of moving operations down south to Ovda. “Most of the foreign carriers have rejected this option as well,” Maimon added.

Whether business people coming to Israel for conferences would be willing to take a four hour bus ride to their hotels in Tel Aviv after landing at Ovda is an open question, said Donitza – but come to Israel they will. “We organize some of Israel’s biggest tech and business events, such as high-tech show MIXii, the annual Nanotech Israel, and the triennial Agritech Israel event. In September, we are organizing a major event for investors, called Forex Innovators, which will draw thousands of bankers and financial industry officials to Israel. So far,” said Donitza, “we haven’t had any cancellations for this event.”

Many of those attending business events in Israel have been here before. “The people who come to the international shows are often ‘return customers,’ who have done business with Israeli companies and institutions in the past,” said Donitza. “The CEOs and professors who come here are cognizant of the security situation, and in previous security situations, such as during Operation Defensive Shield – which took place in the fall, ‘high season’ for business events – there were few cancellations, despite the missiles that were fired at Tel Aviv then as well.” Those who do cancel are usually lower-level employees of multinational companies, “who are told by the insurance or security departments of their companies not to come. But once the crisis has passed, the ban on travel to Israel is usually lifted.”

Although business travel to Israel dips in the summer, July and August are high tourist season for visitors from abroad as well. Not this year, though, said Mizrahi. “If last week we were hopeful that we could eke things out and rescue at least part of the season, at this point, it’s clear that this summer will go down as a major disaster. 2014 was supposed to be a record year for Israeli tourism, but obviously that is not going to be the case now.”

Most tourism industry professionals are basically writing off the summer, said Mizrahi. “Our one hope is that we can rescue the fall and winter,” he said. “Already, airlines and hotels are planning major ad campaigns – and are planning to institute major discounts – in order to bring people back when the fighting stops. The one bright spot in the tourism industry is Eilat, which has so far largely been unaffected by the mass cancellations in hotels in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and other cities, said Mizrahi. “So far Eilat is surviving, but if this goes on much longer, the cancellations will reach there as well.”

The same goes for business travelers, said Donitza. “Business travelers have been more accepting of security issues. For now we’re okay – but if we’re still in this two weeks from now, all bets are off.”

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