January 19, 2019

Why the FAA banned flights to Israel

On Sept. 11, 1969, Israeli flying ace Giora Romm parachuted into the Nile Delta, badly wounded. Months later, he became the first Israeli prisoner of war in Egypt whose life was spared by a POW exchange between the two countries. Romm recounted his tale of captivity and heroic recovery throughout the Sukkot holiday in Los Angeles as part of his book tour for “Solitary: The Crash, Captivity and Comeback of an Ace Fighter Pilot,” the newly released English version of his best-selling Israeli memoir.

“Then I faced the toughest issue of the ex-POW,” the tall and stately Romm, 69, told the Jewish Journal at the Luxe Hotel last week. “Most POWs don’t recover from this trauma. They cannot hold down a family, a job, a life — they do not sleep at night. I decided I would not let the Egyptians dictate my life, and if in my previous life I was an excellent Air Force pilot — and, believe me, I was an excellent pilot — I’m going to be an excellent pilot even later.”

Romm went on to become deputy commander in the Israeli Air Force, returning to Egypt as a squadron leader during the Yom Kippur War, and later became Israel’s military attaché in the United States. He now serves as director of the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI), and last summer, he helped Israel overcome a national kind of “solitary,” when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned flights to Israel for 33 hours on July 22 in the midst of Israel’s war with Gaza, known as Operation Protective Edge. In response to the ban, some Conservative critics accused the Obama administration of using the FAA to hold Israel captive to White House policies. 

“In my view, this was nonsense,” Romm said of the criticism. “It was a technical decision by the FAA. I don’t think they had any external involvement, as some high ranking [American] officials spoke with me and said so in plain words.” 

The possibility there might be an FAA lockdown was already known to the CAAI at the start of the operation, which Israel launched on July 8 in an effort to stem Hamas rocket and tunnel attacks from Gaza.

“The FAA called us just before the curfew [on Gaza] and told us about the regulation that if a rocket falls within a perimeter of one mile from the airport, the regulations they have are to put a ban for 24 hours in order to understand what happened and what steps the country is taking to prevent it from happening again,” Romm said.

On July 22, when a Hamas rocket struck the city of Yehud, one mile from the airport’s fence, Delta Air Lines and US Airways quickly made independent decisions to divert flights from Israel, and the FAA made good on its warning. Europe’s airlines followed, further damaging Israeli tourism and leaving travelers who weren’t flying El Al stranded, wondering when or how they’d get home. Romm’s team spent the following intense 33 hours on the phone with the American Embassy and video-conferencing with the FAA, detailing Israel’s safety precautions and procedures. 

“We thought, after research, that a chance that a rocket will hit a plane in the air is one in 1 billion,” Romm said.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., accusations of political motives culminated in Sen. Ted Cruz confronting the FAA head. But it wasn’t political pressure that ended the ban, Romm said.

“They wanted to have assurances that the right precautions were taken to make sure a rocket wouldn’t hit Ben Gurion, and I think we gave them very good assurances,” he said, adding that the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv was supportive of efforts to lift the ban.

Romm said he is certain the FAA takes similar precautions in other rocket-prone conflict areas, but because Ben Gurion is Israel’s only international airport, it is, in Romm’s words, Israel’s “Achilles’ heel.”

So why wasn’t the Yehud rocket intercepted?

“That was the decision of the Israeli Air Force not to intercept the rocket,” Romm said. “Was that the best decision or not? That’s a different story. But they decided not to intercept it, and they knew that it wasn’t going to hit Ben Gurion, but north of Ben Gurion. The air force didn’t know about the one-mile rule, but the [Israel Defense Forces] knows pretty early where the rocket is going to impact the ground.”

Romm said he doesn’t understand why the ban should continue to concern American Jews. The U.S. has a much more pressing aviation issue at hand, he said, and it’s not the Ebola crisis (which, he also said, is under control in Israel, as Ethiopian Airlines is the only African carrier flying into the country).

“As we speak, American pilots are flying day and night over hostile territory,” Romm said, concerned with the possibility of American pilots becoming POWs in Iraq or Syria, as he was in Egypt. “If I were an American, that would be more significant than anything else going on right now.”