After the Rockets Stopped Falling – the Gaza conflict and its impact on Israeli commercial aviation
In many ways, the recent Gaza Conflict that raged from May 10 – 21 was just the latest battle in a long-running war between Israel and Hamas. It follows that the impact on civil aviation was, in some ways, similar to previous Gaza conflicts. But there were also notable differences. Here are five key takeaways.
1. Israeli civil aviation demonstrated remarkable durability in operations
Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s primary commercial airport, continued operating every day of the conflict. Even while rockets were falling within the Tel Aviv metro area, the airport remained open for landings and takeoffs for the vast duration of the conflict. At times, the airport authority halted operations, or arrivals only – diverting inbound aircraft to Ramon International Airport in the south near Eilat. It was a bold – decision. And in the final analysis – it turned out to be the correct one.
The airport, like other critical infrastructure sites, is protected by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. According to government reports, Hamas fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israel during the period, with the Iron Dome successfully intercepted 90% of its targets. But 10% of 4,000 is still a lot of rockets that can cause a lot of harm. While some did indiscriminately hit buildings, homes, and vehicles, no critical infrastructure was damaged in Israel.
2. Israel finally has a viable alternate in Ramon Airport
During the brief periods in which Ben Gurion Airport was closed for arrivals due to security concerns, inbound aircraft was diverted to Ramon Airport. This is a significant development, in that Israel now has a viable commercial alternative for diverting aircraft whether for reasons of security, weather, or anything else. In the past Ovda Airfield, a former air force base and sort of make-do international airport for Eilat, was the only alternative. But Ovda had limited services and was not well-suited for the purpose. Ramon, by contrast, was designed and built, in part, to provide a viable commercial alternative to Ben Gurion when needed.
Toward the end of the conflict, Hamas announced that it was targeting Ramon – and Israel Air Force bases in the southern half of the country. None were hit – but the threat of potential future risk has to be accounted for in mitigation planning for subsequent conflicts.
3. Israeli airlines kept flying – most foreign airlines canceled
El Al, Israir, and Arkia maintained scheduled operations to the best of their ability during the conflict. Some flights needed to be re-timed and a few required arrivals and/or departures from Ramon. El Al even added some extra flights to make up for the capacity reductions resulting from the cancellations of other airlines.
Most Western European, and all U.S., airlines canceled flights almost immediately when Hamas fired the first rockets into Israel on May 10, returning only after the ceasefire was declared on May 21. Many Eastern European and South Asian airlines kept flying. Other major carriers including Ethiopian, Turkish, Etihad, and flydubai were something of a hybrid – flying some of the time but halting operations during the most intense rocket attacks in the middle and latter days of the conflict.
That Israeli airlines continued to fly – despite the rockets falling within visible range – provided just the latest example why Israel needs a national airline. Considering the ongoing precarious financial condition of El Al – it should not go unnoticed by government officials who continue to show lackluster support for the strategic imperative of a strong and viable national airline.
4. Tactical rerouting of arrivals to reduce risk
During the conflict, aircraft were directed on more northerly routes where feasible to increase the distance from the threat of rockets in central Israel. Arrivals into Ben Gurion from the over the Mediterranean (the vast majority of flights) were not flying the standard arrival routes (AMMOS A and B) that track SSE making landfall just north of Tel Aviv. Instead, a non-standard approach was used in which inbound traffic crossed the Israeli coastline over RAPIV waypoint near Caesarea and continued east to DALCA before turning SW toward Ben Gurion Airport.
5. Reduced overflight traffic
Since the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 and the integration of Israel into the regional air routes, European airlines started to use the transit route over Israel to the Gulf states and South Asia. Most of those airlines had already canceled service to Israel with the outbreak of the Gaza conflict, and not surprisingly, rerouted flights to the slightly longer southern track over Egyptian Sinai to avoid Israeli airspace altogether. But even flights in and out of Amman – which greatly benefit from the shortcut over Israel – were impacted. Turkish Airlines, for example, which normally routes its Istanbul – Amman (IST-AMM) flights over Israel, flew the more circuitous route south over Sinai and back north over Jordan. The “Israel shortcut” saves only about 15 minutes on a London – Dubai (LHR-DBX) route. But detour on a route like AMM-IST is much greater and adds about 35-40 minutes flight time.
Airlines will always prioritize safety first, no matter the cost. But both airline and air traffic management personnel will need to adjust operating procedures and staffing to anticipate and manage the rerouting that will likely occur in any future conflict.
In the final analysis, Hamas succeeded in reducing – but by no means stopping – commercial flights into and out of Israel. As expected, most – but by no means all – foreign carriers suspended operations. All Israeli airlines kept flying – and Ben Gurion Airport operated around the clock with very few interruptions.
While the risk from rocket attack is not unique to Tel Aviv (witness the various aerial attacks on Riyadh from Houthis in Yemen) – it does pose an ongoing risk to operations as experience shows that Hamas’ ability to improve range and accuracy only improves over time.The Iron Dome system did its job in this round. But the only real long-term security can come from eliminating the threat of rocket attack from Gaza altogether.