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Is Air Travel Safe?

  • Victor Beattie

Dror Heitner, left, walks with his wife Rinat Heitner, right, and their 16-year-old son Ori Heitner toward a security checkpoint at Newark Liberty International Airport, July 22, 2014, in Newark, N.J.

Dror Heitner, left, walks with his wife Rinat Heitner, right, and their 16-year-old son Ori Heitner toward a security checkpoint at Newark Liberty International Airport, July 22, 2014, in Newark, N.J.

Despite last week’s downing of a Malaysian jetliner over eastern Ukraine with the loss of all on board, aviation experts insist air travel worldwide remains, by far, the safest mode of transportation.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Notice to Airmen Tuesday, banning U.S. carriers from flying to or from Israel's Ben-Gurion airport, after a rocket strike 1.6 kilometers from the airport perimeter earlier in the day. The European Aviation Safety Agency Tuesday also issued a Safety Information bulletin that strongly recommended airspace users refrain from operating to and from the Tel Aviv airport.

Delta Airlines Flight 468, en route from New York to Tel Aviv with 290 passengers and crew, was diverted in mid-flight Tuesday to Paris.

"Delta had to do what Delta had to do. It’s quite unfortunate that we were literally an hour before landing in Ben-Gurion," saidi Daniel Leon, who was aboard that flight. "But, I respect the decision, right. I mean, they’ve got some rules that they have to obey, and they explained to us why they were doing it. There was a bit of confusion on the plane earlier on. But, I think, we’re on the ground now, they were extremely helpful."

No security problem

Israeli authorities insist there is no security problem. Transport Minister Yisrael Katz said there was no reason to cancel flights and, "yield to terrorism".

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he was traveling to Tel Aviv on El Al Airlines Tuesday to show solidarity with the Israeli people and prove the airport is safe. He called the flight restrictions a mistake that, in "hand Hamas an undeserved victory."

In Washington Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the FAA notice is aimed at ensuring public safety, not a political statement directed at Israel over its operation against Hamas militants in Gaza.

A departure board at the Philadelphia International Airport shows that US Airways Flight 796 to Tel Aviv has been canceled, July 22, 2014.

A departure board at the Philadelphia International Airport shows that US Airways Flight 796 to Tel Aviv has been canceled, July 22, 2014.

"I would note that, in 2012, the (State) Department also issued travel warnings for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in March, August, and December," Harf said. "So, this is a step we have taken when we felt the situation on the ground warranted it. Obviously, that is a process that we go through that in no way is policy-related or politically-related. It is just related to how we can best protect American citizens.

"The FAA makes these decisions when they feel it’s warranted, again, for the safety of United States citizens," she added. "And they, in response to the recent attack at Ben-Gurion Airport, in the vicinity of Ben-Gurion Airport, after consultation with U.S. operators, felt today that it was important to issue this notice."

Malaysian Airlines Crash

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard at a crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region, July 20, 2014.

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard at a crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region, July 20, 2014.

Concern about airline safety also follows last week’s downing of Malaysian Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in which all 298 people on board perished. U.S. intelligence suggests ill-trained pro-Russian separatists using a sophisticated Russian-made surface-to-air missile are responsible.

Aviation consultant Scott Hamilton of Leeham Company says the FAA directive is not unusual.

"The FAA has been issuing no-fly zones for quite a while and, in fact, since the Malaysian (MH17) shoot down, there have been a number of maps that have shown up on the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere that have identified where there are no-fly zones or restricted-area fly zones that the FAA has issues," Leeham said. "And, some of those go back years, if not decades, Somalia, for example, northern Kenya. Those have been in existence for quite some time."

The FAA has also imposed restrictions on U.S. flights over Ethiopia, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia and Ukraine. It identifies as potentially hostile regions Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Iran, Kenya, Mali, Syria and Yemen.

Safe to fly

Airline Captain John Cox, who is also chief executive officer of the Washington-based aviation consulting firm Safety Operating Systems, insists, despite these recent incidents, including the March disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, it is very safe to fly commercial aircraft.

"In spite of the tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and the Malaysian Flight 370, it has never been safer to fly," he insisted. " We flew 3.3-billion passengers last year. We had the lowest fatality rate in recorded history. These tragedies do not change the fact of the safety of our aviation system.

Cox acknowledges that sophisticated weaponry like the SA-11 air-defense system in the hands of non-military groups is very concerning.

"The failure to correctly identify that airplane (MH17) was unconscionable, it was inept," he said. " Never in history have we had a surface-to-air missile rise to a cruising altitude of a commercial jet, over 30,000 feet (9100 meters).

Cox says such missile systems are not in great numbers and there will be a concerted effort to block out passage over airspace in areas where open conflict occurs. And, he says aviation organizations, including manufacturers, regulators and operators all employ robust safety management systems to minimize exposure to potential hazards in flying.

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