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Aviation News Roundup: Israel-Hamas Conflict Impacts Air Travel

On Saturday, a tragic turn of events saw Hamas launch an unprecedented attack on Israel, leading to the loss of hundreds of lives, countless more taken hostage, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring war.

UA954’s Unexpected Detour: The whole world can change in an instant. UA954, a San Francisco to Tel Aviv flight, operated by a 777-300ER, found itself mid-air when the war began. The plane had to make a 180-degree turn over Greenland, embarking on a 13-hour “flight to nowhere” before landing safely back in SFO.

Terrifying Moments at TLV: Passengers at Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV) were subjected to moments of sheer terror as rockets were intercepted nearby, forcing some to abandon their luggage and take cover as air raid sirens rang out. Surprisingly, this only briefly disrupted airport operations.

Ben Gurion Still in Business: Despite the perilous situation, as per FlightAware data at the time of writing, TLV has only seen 65 canceled departures (20% of the total) and 70 canceled arrivals (23%) for the day. This defied our expectations, considering the circumstances. Then again, Ben Gurion is considered by many to be the world’s most secure airport – if I were in Israel right now, even despite the airport being named a target by Hamas, I still think the airport is likely the safest place to be.

U.S. Airlines Play it Safe: Most U.S. and Canadian airlines have cancelled all flights in and out of Israel, limiting the options of Americans already in the country & trying to escape. The Allied Pilots Association (union for American Airlines) advised its pilots not to operate flights, citing safety concerns, and Delta just announced the cancellation of all TLV flights for the remainder of October. President Biden has publicly called upon U.S. carriers to resume service and facilitate the return of American citizens, but it remains uncertain if this will materialize. Meanwhile, we’ve heard anecdotal evidence of AA rebooking its customers on alliance partner British Airways to get them out via Heathrow; it’s unclear if United and Delta are using similar tactics, but I imagine SkyTeam is struggling, with KLM following Delta’s lead in suspending flights.

Brave AA Pilots Step Up: In a remarkable show of solidarity, American Airlines pilots went against the advice of their own union, in order to take care of their own. They operated a special flight, AA9602 from TLV to JFK on a 777-200, exclusively for crew members and non-revenue passengers. United operated a similar flight for their crew, though details are unclear – and perhaps that’s a good thing, in the name of OPSEC. (h/t @xJonNYC)

European Airlines’ Mixed Response: IAG group airlines, such as British Airways and Iberia, and low-cost carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair, appear to be largely operating normally, with a few flights cancelled and others operating as normal. According to a post in an unofficial AAdvantage members group, BA was even still serving PDBs in Club World… and I think a PDB would be the least of my worries while trying to escape a warzone. However, some carriers, like KLM, have suspended all flights. It’s interesting to note that European carriers seem to generally have a much higher risk tolerance when it comes to flying into geopolitically unstable regions compared to their U.S. counterparts.

Even TK is Out: Turkish Airlines’ decision to suspend flights to Tel Aviv comes as a sobering indicator of the ongoing security concerns in the region. In an aviation landscape where many carriers are altering their routes and schedules in near-real time due to geopolitical tensions, Turkish Airlines has been known for its resilience, continuing to fly to destinations within Russia even amidst the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. However, the situation in Tel Aviv has forced the airline to make this difficult choice, underscoring the seriousness of the circumstances in the area.

El Al Bringing People… In?: El Al (LY) emerges as a crucial player during this turbulent period. While other carriers are reducing their services, El Al is bringing many into TLV. Why? Many Israelis are returning home from abroad to serve in the war, as Israel calls up an unprecedented 300,000 reservists. It’s worth noting that El Al is the only commercial air carrier to equip its aircraft with missile defense systems. These systems, like Elbit Systems’ C-MUSIC, are designed to throw off heat-seeking missiles with infrared or flares, ensuring the safety of passengers and crew.

As the situation unfolds, those wishing to leave the region should do so as soon as possible, by any safe means possible, and let your home country’s embassy know of your whereabouts. For American travelers, this means enrolling in the STEP program. It’s worth repeating – and I can’t stress this enough – if you’re an American or Canadian, and you want out of Israel, your best bet by far right now is to get yourself to Europe as soon as safely possible and figure it out from there. Despite Biden’s plea to the airlines, there is no guarantee we will see another commercial flight to the U.S. from TLV for the duration of the war. Could it happen? Yes, but I’d much rather be figuring out my next move from the safety of Heathrow than waiting for the federal government to figure things out.

In these challenging times, aviation takes on a role beyond its usual purview, providing an essential escape route for individuals affected by the ongoing conflict. The situation remains fluid, but we’ll continue to follow it and bring you info as we get it.

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