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U.S. bans Israel flights, citing rocket attack

U.S. bans Israel flights, citing rocket attack
John Vause/CNN
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Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 3:38pm

The Federal Aviation Administration has told U.S. airlines that they are prohibited from flying to or from Israel's Ben Gurion Airport for up to 24 hours.

"The notice was issued in response to a rocket strike which landed approximately one mile" from the airport Tuesday morning, the FAA said.

The suspension comes amid ongoing conflict between Israel and militants in Gaza. The Israeli military said at least 41 rockets were fired from the Palestinian territory toward Israel on Tuesday.

Operations at the airport in Tel Aviv continued Tuesday after the FAA issued its order, according to CNN's Atika Shubert, who was reporting from Ben Gurion Airport. Shubert said she saw a rocket being intercepted near the airport. "This is the environment that the planes are flying in and out of," she said.

The airport is the premier gateway between Israel and the rest of the world. Last year, Israel received a record 3.5 million visitors, according to the country's Central Bureau of Statistics. Before the recent violence, the bureau reported a record 1.4 million visitors for the first half of 2014, but the escalating violence is likely to put a damper on the numbers.

Travel agents are scrambling.

"We are in touch with all our clients, and we're obviously helping to move them to another airline," said Iris Hami, owner of Gil Travel in Philadelphia.

Hami said her agency is working closely with Israel's El Al Airlines. El Al continued to operate its regular schedule Tuesday, including up to five flights a day from the U.S., according to the airline.

Hami said she's rebooking ton an El Al flight a group of more than 100 travelers that was scheduled to fly US Airways to Israel Tuesday night.

Delta Air Lines and American Airlines both suspended service to Ben Gurion Airport before the FAA notice was issued.

Delta Flight 468 was in the air over Greece on Tuesday when it turned around and headed to Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport instead of heading to Tel Aviv as scheduled. The flight originated at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport with 273 passengers, the airline said.

The American Airlines flights in question -- between Philadelphia and Ben Gurion -- are operated by US Airways, said American spokesman Casey Norton.

United Airlines has also suspended flights to and from Tel Aviv, the airline said.

The Israel Airport Authority told CNN that the U.S. companies made the decisions on their own, and it urged them to reconsider, saying the airport was safe. "There is no reason that American carriers should stop flying to Israel and thus give a prize to terror," it said.

Aviation security consultant Jeff Price calls the decision by airlines to halt flights to Tel Aviv's airport for the moment "a prudent measure considering the proximity of the rocket attacks to the Ben Gurion airport."

"The airline must protect their passengers and their asset (the airplane) from death, damage and destruction, so they aren't going to fly into a location that they believe to be unsafe," Price said.

"This is the same situation that airlines encounter during natural disasters like hurricanes, where the airlines move their aircraft out of harm's way until the storm has passed. This is a storm of a different kind, and I think because of MH17 people are more sensitive to their commercial flight flying over an area where military ordinance is being hurled around."

The shooting down last week of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is part of the airlines' decision to back out of Israel, agrees aviation security expert Richard Bloom.

"Another part of it is the actual war going between Hamas and Israel. Hamas has displayed some surprises -- how many missiles they have and how far they can go. That explains why a number of (airlines) are getting out," said Bloom, director of terrorism, intelligence and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

"It's extremely, extremely difficult to protect a commercial aircraft," he said.

Several European airlines have also decided to halt flights to Israel. The Lufthansa Group has suspended flights to Israel for the next 36 hours, including Lufthansa's Austrian Airlines and Swiss International Air Lines flights, according to a Lufthansa official.

Dutch flag carrier KLM has canceled a flight to Israel which was due to depart Tuesday evening. The company says it is still looking into whether future flights will also be canceled.

The suspensions come a day after the U.S. State Department asked Americans to consider deferring nonessential travel to Israel and the West Bank.

Monday's travel warning reaffirmed existing guidance against any travel to Gaza, which the State Department says "is under the control of Hamas, a foreign terrorist organization." The department urged U.S. citizens already in Gaza to depart immediately.

Visitors to Israel should familiarize themselves with the nearest bomb shelters in case of attack and should avoid areas of Israel near Gaza because of the possibility of attacks from Gaza "with little or no warning," the advisory says.

CNN's Devon Sayers, Suzanne Presto, Amir Tal, Tim Lister, Marlena Baldacci and Justin Lear contributed to this report.

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