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Israel's air safety among world's worst, U.S. says

The U.S. government has ranked Israel's air safety among the world's worst, lumping it with countries like Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and Zimbabwe.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel's heavily fortified international airport is considered by many to be the go-to place for airline security, with vehicle checks, robots, closed-circuit cameras and controversial passenger profiling all helping to keep travelers safe from terror attacks.

But behind the reputation — and above the airport — lie troubled skies.

The U.S. government has ranked Israel's air safety among the world's worst, lumping it with countries like Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and Zimbabwe.

In a pair of mishaps, the Israeli air force scrambled warplanes to intercept commercial airliners suspected of being hostile aircraft. Some pilots fear an airliner could one day be shot down by mistake.

The downgrade in Israeli safety standards, reaffirmed late last year, was first issued in 2008, in the wake of two additional mishaps that could have resulted in accidents, said an Israeli aviation official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss the issue with media.

"This is an international embarrassment for the civil aviation authority," Giovanni Bisignani, the head of the International Air Transport Association, an industry umbrella group, said of the downgrade during a recent visit here.

Other warnings are coming from home.

Israel's state watchdog agency recently accused the government of dragging its feet on implementing a safety panel's recommendations to redress serious problems at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Chief among them were outdated technology, runways that are too short, crowded air space used by both commercial airlines and the military, and a dysfunctional civil aviation authority.

Bisignani visited Israel in November, in part to press the country to update its air safety practices — which stand in stark contrast to the sparkling new international airport that served a record 3.5 million tourists last year and a similar number of Israeli travelers. He told local officials that passengers should remain confident in the safety of Israel's airlines — El Al, Israir, Arkia and C.A.L. Cargo Airlines.

Bisignani also praised Israel's "long history of leadership" on security — singling out its "pioneering work on behavior monitoring." Other countries, like the U.S., have balked at such methods, where inspectors question people who match suspicious profiles, often based on ethnic or racial background.

But he took Israel to task for not doing enough to address the problems that led the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to downgrade it to the lower of two categories — ordinarily the province of the world's least-developed nations.

The Category 2 ranking prevents Israeli airlines from expanding capacity in the U.S. market or carrying code-share passengers from U.S. airlines.

"It is a costly situation for the country's reputation and it is damaging Israel's airlines," Bisignani said at the time.

His office refused interview requests.

Israel has never experienced an airport crash, but experts say civil aviation here was neglected for decades, with authorities slow to renovate runways and introduce state-of-the-art instrument landing and radar technology. Crowded airspace shared by civil and military flights further complicates matters.

A near-crash between El Al and Iberia carriers in 2007 at Ben-Gurion shook things up and a panel, headed by a former air force commander, was formed to review safety and recommend changes.

Upgrades are under way, including newer radars and instrument landing systems, the extension of one of the airport's three runways and construction of a new air control tower. But state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss said in a September report that the changes are not happening fast enough.

"Despite the safety deficiencies noted in critiques by commissions and professionals in Israel and abroad, government ministries unfortunately did not do enough to improve aviation safety in Israel," he wrote, adding that "the lives of civil aviation passengers are liable to be at risk."

He criticized parliament for not passing an updated aviation law. The existing law dates back to 1927, when Britain ruled prestate Palestine.

Since the downgrade, Israel has been working with the FAA to meet top-category standards, said the Transportation Ministry, which oversees the Israeli civil administration authority and operations at the airport.

The Israeli aviation official says Israel is well on the way to addressing outstanding concerns, mostly updates to antiquated laws, and that he expected an updated aviation law to be ready for parliament in February.

Capt. Boaz Hativa, chairman of the Israel Pilots Association, is worried by some of the provisions in the bill, especially concerning accident investigation.

Under the proposed law, the Israeli agency charged with investigating aviation accidents and other mishaps would no longer be the sole arbiter, and its autonomy would be compromised, Hativa said. Investigative material would no longer be confidential, making people less willing to testify, he added.

"We are afraid that if the institution of accident investigation is impaired, flight safety will suffer," he said.

He and Bisignani also criticized a security program being tested by the Transportation Ministry that requires pilots to submit a security code confirming their identity before they are authorized to land.

The program — still in a test phase — is meant to make sure incoming aircraft do not pose security threats. But at least two planes — in April 2009 and July 2010 — have been intercepted by Israeli fighter jets as they approached Israeli air space after submitting incorrect identity codes.

"We think this code can set off a sequence of events that could lead to the shootdown of an innocent carrier," Hativa said. "Of course, that's an extreme scenario, but it could happen."

Bisignani said no other country has a similar requirement. He said he has encouraged Israel to scrap the program.

The ministry did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on its plans for the program.