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Israel’s El Al Poised to Maintain Vital Air Link
How Israel’s national airline has built infrastructure around the threat of attack for decades.
El Al is no stranger to thwarting threats across its fleet of 41 aircraft and 55 different stations worldwide. For nearly two decades, the now privately funded airline has spent over $1 million per aircraft installing various missile defense systems while enhancing security protocols that span well beyond its Tel Aviv hub.
Operations at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv continue to be disrupted after a deadly attack by Islamic militant group Hamas. Airlines worldwide, including U.S. carriers, have scrubbed flights to Israel. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines announced Monday that it would cut all of its Tel Aviv flights through the end of October.
“Citizens of Israel, we are at war. Not an operation, not a round [of fighting,] at war! This morning Hamas initiated a murderous surprise attack against the state of Israel and its citizens,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday during an address.
On average, nearly a quarter of flights to/from Israel have been canceled since attacks broke out on October 7, per data from FlightAware. Since Saturday, approximately 45% of flights in the country experienced delays. Aviation regulators have admonished pilots flying in or around Israel with the FAA advising ‘caution.’
Preserving an Air Bridge
Bucking the trend of precautionary service cancellations, El Al is operating a near-normal schedule. Between Saturday and Sunday, El Al had 77 scheduled flights departing Israel, and canceled only a single frequency. The carrier had 80 flights arriving in Israel, with only one canceled, according to FlightAware data.
“Our flights are operated as scheduled,” El Al’s website reads.
Not only is the carrier preserving its regular schedule, but it is also adding additional flights to bring soldiers to its home country. In an unprecedented move, Israel called for 300,000 reservists on Monday, per Reuters.
Of course, maintaining some level of passenger service is one lifeline for a war-ravaged country, but what about cargo? While El Al no longer operates a dedicated freighter, the airline sells cargo capacity across its fleet of passenger jets. In July, El Al’s Tel Aviv home airport reported 14,387 tons of cargo transported in passenger aircraft.
Out of the roughly 6,700 international flights into Israel scheduled for October 2023, El Al operates 22% of them, per data from Cirium.
‘Do Not Fly’ Airspace
Amid the flurry of reports that Hamas is targeting Ben Gurion airport with rocket fire, the nearby airspace remains bustling. Pleadings from other regulators have not slowed down traffic, and the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel says it is “mitigating the risk to an acceptable level of safety,” per a FlightGlobal report.
OpsGroup – a group of industry operations professionals who monitor global airspace conditions – issued a stark warning on Monday. Citing recent air disasters involving attacks on airliners, including MH17 and UIA752, the group cautions that a similar event could happen in Israel.
“Israel is now an active war zone, and therefore the Safe Airspace warning is at Level 1 – Do Not Fly. The Israeli cabinet officially declared war against Hamas on Sunday, Oct 8th,” a post from the group read. “The risk of a passenger aircraft becoming a casualty of this war is high.”
Shared on Monday, OpsGroup’s post does note that a significant amount of operating flights are El Al’s, which may still be repatriating citizens and conducting troop transport.
“This may give operators even a sense that ops are normal – but bear in mind that these El Al flights are to some degree troop transport movements, and in fact may increase the appetite for making civil aircraft a target,” the post concludes.
Even though El Al has capped fares and added frequencies, it is unclear how many of its flights are solely operating to transport troops. Despite these warnings, a handful of other air carriers continue to fly a near-regular schedule to Israel. Arkia, Israir, and Pegasys Airlines reportedly had no cancellations over the weekend.
Keeping Business As Usual?
Airlines perform regular risk assessments to balance safety and efficiency. In fact, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) recommends that operators conduct a ‘robust risk assessment’ when deciding whether to fly to Israel.
Keeping an airline flying with rocket fire in its home base’s backyard is indeed a risky play, but El Al comes prepared.
A 2002 terrorist incident where a shoulder-fired missile narrowly missed an Israeli Boeing 757 prompted El Al to install a system called Flight Guard on its fleet. “When a plane comes under attack, the system responds by firing flares designed to confuse a heat-seeking missile and divert it away from the original target,” a 2004 CNN article reads. The fully automated system included a Doppler radar with a full 360-degree view. If a missile were to be detected, flares would be deployed in seconds, a tactic commonly used on fighter jets.
A recent StackExchange post indicates that the system may have been modernized over time. Another Israeli-designed system named C-MUSIC DIRCM (direct infrared countermeasure) leverages lasers instead of flares to deter any approaching missiles. The airline reportedly began deploying the C-MUSIC system in 2013.
El Al’s safety and security infrastructure go well beyond its fleet. A majority of the company’s pilots are ex-Air Force aviators, some of whom have combat experience. The airline – along with Israeli officials – reportedly staff each flight with an armed air marshal.
On the ground, it is not uncommon to see extensive security personnel around El Al’s aircraft, even in out-stations. While its aircraft taxi, El Al will commonly enlist local law enforcement to trail the jet until it becomes airborne. Back inside the terminal, El Al security personnel question passengers prior to check-in, and then again at the gate. Airports worldwide often must cordon off a distinct gate for flights to Israel in compliance with the country’s stringent security policies.
Interesting scene at LAX on Sunday as the EL AL Dreamliner received what seemed to be a police escort while taxiing for its flight back to Tel Aviv. 🚓✈️ #aviation #avgeek #planespotting pic.twitter.com/S5GKn9lFN7
— AIRLINE VIDEOS (@airlinevideos) October 9, 2023
A 2003 analysis in Bloomberg News estimated that El Al spends approximately $100 million per year to comply with Israeli security measures. The airline employs security staff and contractors at all of its stations.
Often dubbed a model for air travel security, El Al has built an airline around its security protocols. During wartime, maintaining critical connections is important for moving both people and supplies. Defense programs such as the U.S.’s Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) seek to do just that with contracted airliners.
Investing millions of dollars and decades readying itself for wartime, El Al appears steadfast in continuing regular operations.
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