ISRAEL - In a sign of increased caution about flying near combat zones, U.S. and European airlines halted flights to Israel Tuesday after a rocket landed near Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport.
Delta Air Lines and United Airlines suspended service between the U.S. and Israel indefinitely. US Airways scrapped its one flight to Tel Aviv Tuesday. Germany's Lufthansa and Air France also suspended flights. The actions come days after a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine with 298 people on board.
Following the action by the U.S. airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration prohibited U.S. airlines from flying to the Tel Aviv airport for 24 hours.
The Israelis are fighting Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in the third war in just over 5 years. Israeli police confirmed that a rocket from Gaza landed in an area near the airport. Police spokeswomen Luba Samri said Tuesday's rocket landing was the closest to the airport since fighting began on July 8.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine Thursday while flying at 33,000 feet. Some experts have second-guessed the airline's decision to fly over an area where pro-Russian separatists are battling the Ukrainian army. But Malaysian officials have countered that the plane's path from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was approved by international regulators.
Aviation and legal experts said Tuesday that airlines are now taking risk assessment into their own hands, both for the safety of passengers and to avoid claims of negligence.
Aviation consultant Robert Mann said airlines are becoming more proactive in the wake of the Fligth 17 disaster.
"It's really forcing every carrier, every business jet operator to do their own due diligence, do their own risk assessment, given the geopolitical situation," Mann said.
Jonathan Reiter, a prominent New York aviation-accident attorney, said flying into an airport after a near-miss by a rocket could be used to show that the airline was negligent. That explains why airlines are suspending service to Israel.
"I'm sure it is human concern as well," Reiter said, "but I think (the airlines) feel it is wise to err on the side of caution because it is their burden to prove they are doing everything possible to avoid injuries and deaths."
Delta's one daily flight was already in the air. A Delta Boeing 747 from New York was flying over the Mediterranean headed for Tel Aviv when it turned around and flew to Paris instead. Flight 468 had 273 passengers and 17 crew on board. US Airways and United flights that were scheduled to take off later in the day. A Delta spokesman declined to go beyond the details released in a statement.
Israel's Transportation Ministry called on the airlines to reverse their decision and said it was trying to explain that the airport was "safe for landings and departures."
"Ben-Gurion Airport is safe and completely guarded and there is no reason whatsoever that American companies would stop their flights and hand terror a prize," it said in a statement.
Casey Norton, a spokesman for US Airways' parent company American Airlines, said the airline is "in constant contact with the FAA and are monitoring the situation closely." The airline has not yet made a decision about flights to Israel scheduled for Wednesday and beyond, he said.