Dozens of flights scheduled to depart from the Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday were halted until further notice due to contamination discovered in airport's jet fuel supply. Airport management has ordered to suspend all aircraft fueling. As a result thousands of passengers are stranded at the airport.
Within a short while it was realized that Israel's minor airports were also affected by the contamination – including the airfields in Eilat and Haifa. The director of the northern airports, Yossi Glasberg, told Ynet that the fuel source was identical to that serving Ben Gurion.
The Israel Airport Authority has launched an investigation into the matter. National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau has formed a ministerial commission of inquiry to investigate as well. The committee will be headed by the Ministry's fuel supervisor Chen Bar-Yosef.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz order an inquiry into the matter as well, to be headed by Ministry Director-General Dan Harel.
An airline official, who asked to remain anonymous, said that "The chaos that confronts us now is colossal. All flights landing in Israel will have to stop in Larnaca, so they have fuel to take off later. That means that the entire takeoffs and landings' schedule has to be altered in Cyprus, as well as Israel. This will disrupt the entire system and create massive delays… If this problem isn't solved immediately, chaos will rule."
Paz Aviation Assets, one of two major jet fuel providers in Israel, said a malfunction occurred in filters belonging jointly to Paz and Mercury Aviation, another major provider. The filters are located at Ben Gurion's fueling terminals, it added.
Arkia Airline announced that the halt in fuel supply has forced management to cancel all local and international flights until further notice. Arkia had 16 local and 10 international flights scheduled for Thursday. El Al followed suit and said it was cancelling 20 flights due to jet fuel shortage.
Ben Gurion International Airport Manager Shmuel Kendel said that 29 planes have been grounded. Twenty three of them indefinitely – as they do not even have enough fuel to reach the Amman Airport for refueling. Six other planes have been diverted to Amman or Larnaka, according to Kendel.
Meanwhile, Ynet learned that while a malfunction in an Arkia plane was the cause for Thursday's decision to ground all airplanes at Ben Gurion, problems with the fuel were detected over a week ago.
According to an employee with one of the fuel providers, the decision followed "three small explosions heard inside an Arkia engine. It was then that an order was issued to stop all fueling activities."
The sources added that the problem was undisclosed initially, due to financial concerns. "All this time, the filters were clogging, until we almost had a disaster today," he said, adding that it is highly likely the directive will remain in place until the problem is solved.
The initial assumption, he continued, "Was that maybe the fueling line was contaminated. Now it is believed that the fuel may have been contaminated at the refinery."
The implications are potentially horrific, as clogged fuel filters may cause a plane to crash.
Paz Aviation Assets said Thursday that it was an unidentified oily substance in the fueling terminals that caused the contamination to the filters, which were sent to the Israel Institute of Energy and Environment for testing. Mercury said it was still investigating.
The institute could not identify the substance and eventually ruled it may be a hazardous material, prompting the decision to immediately halt all fueling activities.
Paz is currently trying to devise a solution for Ben Gurion's fueling terminals. The company insists its fuel supply in uncontaminated, and is currently exploring the possibility of having containers fuel at the Pi Glilot Depot and transferred to the airport. The move is pending police authorization.
Paz said that all filters found to be contaminated with the unidentified substance will be shipped to Germany overnight, for extensive testing.
The company stressed that at this point, there is no indication any deliberate sabotage was involved; adding tests performed on the jet fuel supplied over the past few days found it to be clean and up to code.
The IAA called an emergency meeting following the contamination's discovery. Kendel, who participated in the meeting, said the decision to ground all aircrafts – which was precautionary by nature – followed concerns that a pollutant, emanating from the supply chain to the terminals, was present in the jet fuel.
"On one hand we had clean fuel that is up to code, an on the other, there was this unidentified oily substance clogging some of the filters. Those filters have been sent out for further testing."
Still, following a, IEE recommendation, all fueling activities at Ben Gurion International Airport and Israel's airfields has been suspended pending further testing.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz ordered an inquiry into the matter as well, to be headed by Ministry Director-General Dan Harel.
Aviel Magnezi contributed to this report