Just how safe is it to land at Ben Gurion airport? Within the next few weeks, the Israeli State Comptroller will publish a comprehensive report chronicling endemic safety failures in the country's civil aviation.
At the root of the problem is the crowded airspace.
In November 2008, the American Federal Aviation Authority downgraded Israeli civil aviation's safety rating to Category 2, citing a lack of legislation and inspection procedures, and shortages of trained personnel in these fields. Israel's Civil Aviation Authority promised that the problem would be fixed in a few months, but now the Transport Ministry believes that it will take at least another six months to return to Category 1.
Meanwhile, near-misses continue to occur. Two months ago, a mistake made by the air traffic controllers at Ben Gurion caused an El Al Boeing 737 to take off and pass 250 metres from a Lufthansa jumbo jet which was about to land. The planes' anti-collision systems averted disaster. This week, an El Al plane from Toronto and an Iberia jet approached the landing strip at the same time.
"The civil aviation infrastructure was underfunded for decades," said a senior Transport Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Everyone assumed that it was enough that we had a good air-control system in the air force and El Al has very high safety standards. But that just isn't sufficient in the 21st century."
Pilot was asleep
The captain of an El Al plane flying from Kiev inadvertently took a sleeping pill that incapacitated him, leaving the plane’s first officer to fly the plane alone. Air safety regulations mandate that an airliner be flown at all times by two pilots. An internal investigation showed this week that the captain was taking pills for high blood pressure and had by mistake taken a sleeping pill instead. El Al said the co-pilot was flying alone only for a “short time”.
One of the main problems is the predominance of military aviation in what is a country with very limited airspace. The huge volume of missions flown by Israel's large fleet of fighter jets, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) leave civil aviation narrow corridors. Planes cannot fly over most of Israel's neighbours and the crowded air routes are all focused on a single airport, Ben Gurion.
By the end of the decade, perhaps earlier, Ben Gurion is expected to reach its maximum capacity of 12 million passengers a year.
Even before that there is a major need for a second airport to relieve some of the airspace pressure and to act as a backup in cases of emergency or severe weather.
The local airports at Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat are too small and close to built-up areas. The only airfield currently being used as an alternative to Ben Gurion is the military airbase at Uvda near Eilat, but it too has serious safety problems.
The airfield lacks basic air-safety systems demanded by aviation authorities and sufficient lighting of its runways. In 2009, two near-misses occurred at Uvda between civil airliners and air-force planes.
The government is trying to find a site for a second international airport. The most likely candidate is the Nevatim Air Force base in the Negev.
Two years ago, the Israeli Air Force heavy transport squadrons relocated to Nevatim from Ben Gurion, investing several billion shekels in the base. But the IDF is vehemently opposed to sharing its runways with civil airlines.
"The huge advantage of moving to Nevatim for us" says a veteran IAF transport pilot, "is that we don't have to wait behind Air France and Lufthansa before taking off for a mission any more."