WASHINGTON: US air carriers Delta Air Lines, American Airlines Group and United Airlines on Tuesday halted flights to Israel under directions from the US Federal Aviation Administration to ensure passenger safety as turmoil in the region has intensified.
The US moves were swiftly followed by flight stoppages from European carriers, including Germany’s Lufthansa, Air-France and Dutch airline KLM Air Berlin, Germany’s second-largest carrier, said it halted its flights through Wednesday, citing the situation on the ground in Tel Aviv.
Norwegian Air, Europe’s third-largest budget airline, is also suspending flights to Tel Aviv until further notice, a company spokeswoman told the Norwegian news agency NTB.
Scandinavian Airlines is suspending a flight from Copenhagen later on Tuesday, and another one from Stockholm scheduled for Wednesday. The airline will decide early on Wednesday whether to cancel more flights, a company spokeswoman told NTB.
The FAA said it told the US. carriers that they were prohibited from flying to or from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv for up to 24 hours. In a statement, the FAA said its notice, which applies only to US.-based airlines, was issued in response to a rocket strike which landed about a mile from the airport on Tuesday.
“The FAA immediately notified US. carriers when the agency learned of the rocket strike,” the agency said in a statement. It also said updated instructions would be provided.
The text of the FAA notice cites “the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza” in prohibiting the flights by US. carriers.
Delta and United said in separate statements that they have suspended flights to and from Tel Aviv “until further notice.” Casey Norton, a spokesman for American Airlines, also said both an inbound and outbound flight operated by its US Airways unit between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv were canceled.
The flight stoppages came after Hamas, the militant group that dominates in the Gaza Strip, and its allies fired more rockets into Israel. One hit a town on the fringes of Ben-Gurion International Airport, lightly injuring two people, officials said.
Many of the airlines said customers affected by the halts could change their travel plans without penalty.
The non-US. airlines said their stoppages reflected safety concerns in the absence of specific directives.
“This decision was taken because of the precedence that the safety of passengers and crew takes at all airlines, even though there are currently no additional travel warnings from the relevant authorities,” Lufthansa, which normally flies to Tel Aviv seven to 10 times weekly, said in a statement.
Yisrael Katz, Israel’s Transportation Minister, called on airlines to return to their normal routes. “Ben Gurion is safe for takeoffs and landings and there are no security concerns for aircraft and passengers,” he said in a statement. “There is no need for U.S. carriers to suspend flights and reward terrorism.”
British Airways, which flies to Tel Aviv twice daily, said its flights continue to operate as normal.
Israel launched an offensive earlier in July to halt missile salvoes out of Gaza by Hamas, which was angered by a crackdown on its supporters in the occupied West Bank as well as economic hardship due to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
The United States will not rest until justice is done in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine, President Barack Obama vowed in a condolence book for the nearly 300 victims on Tuesday.
Obama visited the Netherlands Embassy in Washington to sign the book. Of the 298 people killed in the July 17 shootdown over an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists, 193 were Dutch.
“No words can adequately express the sorrow the world feels over this loss. It is made more acute by the deep ties of friendship between our two countries,” the president wrote in the book.
“Bound by that friendship, we will not rest until we are certain that justice is done,” he wrote.
The White House said the United States welcomed news that victims’ remains and the airplane’s black boxes were being transferred to the Netherlands.
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