- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

TEL AVIV — Passengers traveling through Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport are more likely to fall victim to an aviation accident rather than a hijacking, authorities and analysts warn.

Israel, which handled more than 17,000 passenger arrivals a week from the United States during July and August, has been praised worldwide for securing air traffic from terrorist attacks for more than three decades. But air safety standards at Israel’s sole international airport have become so outdated and sloppy that authorities have become profoundly disturbed.

Reported problems include cramped air lanes, poor English spoken by air traffic controllers, communications interruptions by pirate radio stations, anachronistic aviation legislation and insufficient regulation.

“Unfortunately, as Israelis, we put too much into security and not enough into safety. It’s a result of years of negligence,” said Avner Yarkoni, an aviation lawyer, fighter-pilot veteran and former director of Israel’s equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration. “I am quite pessimistic. I hope there won’t be an accident.”

An international aviation panel found 102 air safety deficiencies at Ben Gurion in January. Last week, a team of three FAA analysts visited Israel and submitted an initial report to aviation officials. A second report is expected to be delivered during a return trip next month.

The team was invited to Israel to consider ways to improve flight approach procedures for air lanes that are hemmed in by Israel’s narrow borders and the broad range of airspace dedicated to the air force. The American team also pointed to problems with the placement of the flight control tower and the occasional use of Hebrew by flight controllers.

Though the Israeli press has reported for years that flight transmissions are endangered by interference from pirate radio stations, the frail state of safety was not driven home until a near miss involving an Iberia Airlines commercial jet and one from El Al Israel Airlines in February. The El Al airliner from Toronto nearly collided with the Iberia plane as both were approaching the landing strip.

“We have had many incidents like this. Iberia is only a random incident,” said Yitzhak Raz, the chief accidents inspector at the Civil Aviation Authority. “The state of civil aviation in Israel is at one of its low points that we have experienced since the establishment of the state.”

A Transportation Ministry report after the near miss concluded that Israeli flight-safety technology has been in a “coma” while the rest of the world has made advances. The authority’s inspectors lack sufficient expertise to modernize safety procedures, he said.

Others cited bureaucratic confusion. Authority over aviation in Israel is divided among three institutions — the Civil Aviation Authority, the Airports Authority and the Israeli Air Force — with no clear division of responsibilities.

“We are in a state of emergency,” Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said last month. Aviation safety in Israel is in dire straits. … Every aspect investigated showed signs of collapsing.”

Standards have been allowed to erode over the past two decades, said Mr. Yarkoni, who resigned from the Civil Aviation Authority in 2001 in protest of the poor state of safety. “It’s a result of years of negligence,” he said.

The Airports Authority said it will allocate about $140 million in the coming years to implement the recommendations of the FAA consultants. But Mr. Yarkoni said that correcting problems requires more than money.

Without an overall plan laying out fundamental principles of aviation safety, all of the money invested will go to waste, he said.

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