U.N. Body to Widen Flight Warnings -- 2nd Update
By Andy Pasztor and Susan Carey
The Federal Aviation Administration's move Wednesday to temporarily extend and then lift the ban on U.S. airline flights to Israel is a prelude to a broad international effort stressing the responsibility of all countries to safeguard carriers from hostilities around the globe.
The initial extension of the FAA's ban for at least a second day, said people familiar with the details, came as the International Civil Aviation Organization prepares to distribute a high-priority directive urging governments world-wide to warn airlines about the potential dangers of flying over war zones.
The impending ICAO message, formally called a state letter, is intended to ensure that countries issue timely and comprehensive alerts when hostilities threaten aircraft safety, these people said. ICAO is the air-safety arm of the United Nations.
International air-safety rules and the treaty that created ICAO require national aviation regulators to fence off airspace if carriers are threatened by hostilities. But each government retains the authority to conduct its own risk analysis and decide when to act, with Montreal-based ICAO basically serving as a clearinghouse for "notices to airmen," known in the industry as Notams.
The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has sparked a wider controversy over an array of international carriers continuing to fly over regions where fighting is under way. As a result, the long-standing notification system faces extensive scrutiny from safety experts, passengers and even some airline officials.
ICAO is acting because the leadership sees "more conflict zones and emerging-risk zones, and more attention clearly needs to be paid" to mitigating dangers, said a person familiar with the details. An ICAO spokesman wasn't available to comment.
ICAO released a statement signaling the initiative, saying it was consulting with industry representatives and regional aviation groups about "the respective roles of states, airlines and international organizations for assessing the risk of airspace affected by armed conflict."
The organization's critics, however, say the latest move is self-serving and too late. They contend ICAO should have been more assertive in making that case before Flight 17 went down.
"ICAO is under as much of a microscope as everyone else," said Mark Dombroff, a former FAA lawyer and high-ranking Justice Department official who is now a partner with the law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge in McLean, Va.
"It should be stepping out on a more proactive basis," Mr. Dombroff said, adding that instead of clarifying matters, the anticipated letter "is going to fuel so much more speculation and concern" over the safety of certain airways.
Late Wednesday, after FAA officials engaged in extensive discussions with Israeli civilian and military officials about the criteria for potentially removing the ban, the U.S. agency announced it was immediately ending the flight restrictions.
The FAA statement said it "carefully reviewed both significant new information" provided by Israeli officials along with "measures the government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation."
In addition to ICAO, the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation has called for a reassessment to establish more-objective standards for determining dangers to airways, as well as how such warnings can be most effectively disseminated
The International Air Transport Association, the industry's biggest global trade group, also has urged such a review.
James Hogan, president and chief executive of Etihad Airways, said in an email that the focus should be on airlines having the appropriate information. "Each conflict zone is different with different risks," he said, "and we have different procedures to deal with them."
The FAA's ban covers Delta Air Lines Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc. and the US Airways unit of American Airlines Group Inc., which together accounted for about 53% of the passengers carried nonstop between the U.S. and Israel last year. El Al Israel Airlines Ltd., with 46% of the traffic, is continuing to fly as scheduled.
A number of European carriers canceled flights this week after the European Aviation Safety Agency issued a notice, short of a ban, that strongly recommended halting flights for an unspecified period.
Richard Anderson, Delta's chief executive, said Wednesday during an earnings call that his company's decision to divert a Tel Aviv-bound flight to Paris on Tuesday was made prior to, and independent of, the FAA's initial ban. But once the FAA banned flights to Tel Aviv, Mr. Anderson said Delta naturally would refrain from restarting service until regulators gave the green light.
Yet even if the FAA lifts the ban, he said earlier in the day, Delta might not decide to go back in, depending on the circumstances and the information it receives from Washington and governments around the world. "We have an obligation to make our own risk assessments," he said. "We have security directors who work for Delta in all regions of the world."
Until recently, Delta was routing some of its Atlanta-Dubai flights over Iraq and Syria, depending on the weather, and its Amsterdam-Mumbai flights often went over Ukraine. During an appearance on CNBC on Wednesday, Mr. Anderson said the airline voluntarily imposes "no-fly zones" over certain countries, and he listed Iran, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan.
Asked about the shift, Mr. Anderson said Delta "makes those kinds of changes regularly" on its own. "Just like yesterday morning we decided to turn the Tel Aviv flight around because of the rocket," he said.
US Airways flies a daily round trip between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv with a 258-seat Airbus A330-200. When the Notam went into effect Tuesday, American said, the FAA wouldn't allow the plane to depart with passengers, so it was ferried out by the crew.
American said that, if the FAA lifted the ban, it hoped to restart the flights starting Thursday with a Philadelphia- to-Tel Aviv flight and to operate the return flight Friday. It said it remains in contact with the FAA.
United runs two daily flights between Newark, N.J., and Tel Aviv, each flown by Boeing 777s that can carry 267 passengers. United also had to ferry one of its planes out of Tel Aviv without passengers, returning the widebody jet to Newark early Wednesday, the company said.
Until recently, United tended to fly over Ukraine on its flights between Newark and India, and between Washington and two Middle East destinations. But in the wake of Flight 17, United opted, on its own, to no longer fly over any portion of Ukraine.
Deutsche Lufthansa AG said Wednesday that it would suspend 20 scheduled flights from six European airports to Tel Aviv on Thursday. The German carrier said that "at the present time, no adequate authoritative new information is available that would justify a resumption of flights." The company said that "in close coordination with the responsible authorities, Lufthansa is continually evaluating the safety situation for its total flight network."
-Rory Jones contributed to this article.
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com and Susan Carey at firstname.lastname@example.org
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