Aviation Back in Cross Hairs of Regional Violence


After last week's downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Tuesday's rocket attack near Tel Aviv's airport has brought global commercial aviation back into the cross hairs of surging regional violence targeting air travel.

The U.S. and Ukraine have accused pro-Russian rebels of shooting down the Malaysian passenger jet, killing all 298 people aboard. That crash has raised questions among aviation executives and regulators about the global system for avoiding unsafe airspace.

Aviation-targeted violence in hot spots far from eastern Ukraine has flared, convulsing airports that, while located in tense regions, had previously been viewed as relatively safe for travelers.

Late Tuesday, Delta Air Lines Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc., American Airlines Group, Air Canada and a handful of European carriers suspended service to Israel after a rocket fired from Gaza landed near Tel Aviv'sBen Gurion Airport. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration imposed a temporary flight ban to the airport on U.S. carriers, and its European counterpart was poised to follow suit later Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for Israeli flag carrier El Al confirmed the airline is flying as scheduled.

Israeli forces are locked in a fierce ground war with Hamas, the Islamist political and militant group that the U.S. labels a terrorist organization. Hamas, meanwhile, has showered parts of Israel with increasingly sophisticated rockets that are launched at ground targets--unlike the Buk antiaircraft missiles used against Flight 17--but which still can damage planes at the airport.

In addition to serving Jerusalem and Israel's business hub of Tel Aviv, Ben Gurian airport has become the gateway for a flood of global tech-industry executives, bankers and venture capitalists flying to and from country's booming technology companies.

The violence hasn't been restricted to Ukraine and Israel. Over the past weekend, four empty Libyan jetliners were set aflame during an insurgent assault against Tripoli's international airport. Then a week ago, Kabul's international airport came under attack from insurgents using assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Afghan security forces repelled that attack, but in an earlier raid on the facility Taliban fighters destroyed the helicopter used by Afghanistan's president.

And last month, an insurgent raid on Karachi's main airport killed 28 people and damaged one of Emirates Airline's planes.

Tripoli, Kabul and Karachi aren't frequent stops for western travelers, but all three serve as important regional hubs. And a steady stream of western aid workers, diplomats, contractors and, in the case of Tripoli, oil executives give them outsize importance as international air-travel destinations.

None of these recent airport attacks appear to be connected. But their sudden confluence has aviation executives worried the events could spook passengers by again painting commercial aviation as easy pickings for insurgents and terrorists. "The airline community is being targeted," said one senior airline executive. "No other industry suffers like this."

Tel Aviv's airport stayed open on Tuesday, and Israeli aviation officials said it remains safe. Still, decisions about the safety of a route are mostly left up to individual airlines. And executives and regulators have been on the defensive about how they make those decisions, since the Malaysia Airlines crash last week.

Flight 17 was plying a well-traveled route over eastern Ukraine, which Kiev authorities had deemed safe. U.S. and Ukrainian officials say it was shot down by a sophisticated antiaircraft weapon.

The incident has raised questions about whether commercial aircraft should have been allowed in the region. There also has been a ratcheting up of scrutiny of commercial overflights of other war zones.

Terrorists have long targeted commercial aircraft, for which accidents often result in high death tolls and big headlines. The industry suffered a spate of hijackings in the 1970s. A bomb brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.

And terrorists commandeered four jets on Sept. 11, 2001, crashing two into the World Trade Center in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington DC. A fourth plane that day crashed in Pennsylvania, as passengers battled the hijackers. The attacks left 2,977 victims.

"Aviation has always been a target and it will always be a target," said Philip Baum, managing director of Green Light Ltd., an aviation-security consulting firm in London.

The Malaysia Airlines disaster has some aviation officials and executives calling for a rethink of how aircraft are routed over war-torn territory. On Monday, the Flight Safety Foundation, an internationally recognized aviation-safety advocacy group, said airlines should review their procedures. And executives find themselves on the defensive again.

Shooting down the Malaysia Airlines flight was a terrible crime, said Tony Tyler, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, or IATA, the airline industry's principal trade body said earlier this week. "But flying remains safe."

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