An extension of flight restrictions to Israel means more uncertainty for travelers in a six-day span marred by the shooting down of a commercial flight over Ukraine and a rocket strike near Israel’s gateway international airport.
Suddenly, many travelers are keenly aware of the risks of flying through conflict zones. Safe airspace is top of mind for people considering trips to troubled spots and those just hoping to get home sooner rather than later.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed in eastern Ukraine on July 17, killing all 298 people aboard. U.S. intelligence officials say that pro-Russian rebels were responsible for shooting down the commercial airliner traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. But they now believe the rebels probably didn’t know that it was a commercial airliner, officials said Tuesday.
On the day of the crash, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice prohibiting U.S. flight operations in the airspace over eastern Ukraine until further notice, extending an April ban on flights over the Crimea region.
On Wednesday, the FAA extended its ban on U.S. airline flights to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, for up to 24 hours. The order was prompted by a rocket strike near the airport on Tuesday. European aviation authorities issued warnings Tuesday urging carriers to avoid the region.
The unusual string of events has travelers worried.
“I never had a reason to think I was flying over a war zone where missiles might be flying,” said Elizabeth Bratt, 34, an American living in Taiwan, who is planning to travel to Europe and the Middle East in the fall. “I would have trusted an airline to avoid such an area.”
The concern over routes doesn’t surprise aviation security consultant Jeff Price.
“Most travelers were only mildly concerned about where their flights were going prior to the Malaysia flight,” Price said. “Many are probably more concerned about it now. I know I would be, and I would definitely be concerned about anything flying over an ‘act of war’ zone.”
Or into a war zone.
The FAA ban on U.S. airlines flying into Tel Aviv follows on the heels of a State Department travel warning Monday about the region. It advised Americans to consider deferring nonessential travel to Israel and the West Bank and reaffirmed existing guidance against any travel to Gaza. Other countries are cautioning their citizens against some travel to the region.
Tourism taking a hit
The escalating violence and resulting travel restrictions mean tourists are starting to avoid Israel. A country of about 8 million people, Israel welcomed a record 3.5 million visitors last year and a record 1.4 million for the first half of 2014, according to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
The country’s largest airport, Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion, handled a record 14.3 million passengers in 2013, up 8% from 13.1 million passengers in 2012, according to Airports Council International, a trade group. (Israel has six commercial airports, two of which handle international traffic.)
Israeli tourism had already been affected by the conflict, and it was further affected by the FAA’s flight ban. Hotel occupancy in central cities has dropped to 50%, according to Yossi Fatael, managing director of the Israel Tourist and Travel Agents Association.
Since July 15, the number of visitors cutting short their visits has increased from 25% to 40%. “The accumulating damage figure is some $500 million,” Fatael said.
Should the situation clear up in the next few days, Fatael said, the overall damage might be lighter than expected. If it continues, he couldn’t speculate on the long-term impact on Israeli’s tourism industry.
There’s never been an event that affected tourism in Israel to this level, he said, in part because of the timing. “During the Gulf War in 1991, the situation was somewhat similar,” Fatael said. “Yet it was in January and not during the height of tourism season.”
Still trying to get to Israel
Gil Travel is still sending tour groups to the Middle East, its owner said Wednesday. The Philadelphia-based company had tour groups scheduled to fly into Israel on Wednesday night.
Working with El Al airlines, Gil Travel has been able to get more than 100 passengers switched to flights that would take them from New York to Israel.
“Same goes the other way,” owner Iris Hami said. “Those who need to leave from Israel will fly out El Al or stay late.”
But because the flight restrictions are happening day-to-day, she’s asking travelers with flexible schedules to wait another day, in case they’re able to stick with their original airline.
Hassan Khawaled, a tour guide with travel group Ahalan Olympus, had a group of students scheduled to fly into Tel Aviv on Wednesday for an Islamic-focused tour of Israel. Since flights have been canceled, the Israel-based agency flew them into Jordan and drove into Israel, he said.
Travelers are trying to get home
Article source: http://www.ktuu.com/world-unrest-raises-travel-tension/27116586