"There, it's almost over" Uri thought to himself when the captain told the stewardesses to prepare for landing. Usually a non-believer, he finds himself mumbling a prayer obsessively every time he gets on a plane. Not that it helps calm his pulse down, or dries the cold sweat, but it helps make the terror slightly more manageable.
The Tel Aviv skyline that appears beneath him inspires a shred of hope. "There, it's almost over," he thought as the plane made a last turn before landing and straightened towards the landing strip. He glanced through the window one more time when he suddenly noticed a glaring light that kept growing seemingly moving towards him. "Strange," he mumbled.
Seconds later, Holon and Bat Yam residents heard a frightful explosion. Those on the street reported a huge fireball that lightened the dark skies as particles of burning metal rained down on them.
It took another 24 hours before authorities and the media managed to summarize the data of the greatest disaster in the history of the State of Israel: 85 people killed in the buildings that collapsed and the fires that broke out, 170 injured hospitalized in critical condition in hospitals throughout the Gush-Dan region. The 474 passengers on the colliding planes missing.
Only 800 feet and the vigilance of the an air controller at Ben Gurion Airport averted the aforementioned scenario a month ago. That night, on November 18, the air controller noticed a deviation of the Air Berlin flight and at the last minute managed to put the plane back on course, preventing a deadly mid-air crash with an El Al flight.
In aviation authority professional jargon, these cases are considered "safety incidents." These incidents occur frequently. From 2005 to 2009 an average of 950 incidents occurred, 28 of which were worse than average.
Actual accidents occur at a much smaller rate of 35 per year on average, and (for now) only on the small planes. We only hear about these accidents if someone gets killed. As for safety incidents, you will hardly ever hear about them, even if you flew on a plane that was involved in one.
Ben Gurion Airport in fog - landing strip blind spots (Dudu Azulay)
Only two days before the November incident, an Alitalia plane ignored red lights at the beginning of a landing strip. It began to move forward as a Russian flight moved in for landing on the same runway. An alert air controller saved the day again as he immediately told the Alitalia pilot to stop, preventing a deadly crash on the runway.
In another incident that occurred last year involving a Lufthansa plane and an El Al plane, an accusatory finger was pointed at the control tower. Because of erroneous directions it received, the German plane which was coming in for landing got to within 170 meters (550 feet) of the Israeli plane which was also coming in for landing. This time, it was the El Al pilot's alertness and the planes' automatic systems that prevented the crash.
In 2007, following another near-crash over Ben Gurion Airport, a public committee was established in order to examine air safety in the civil aviation authority, under the leadership of former Israel Air Force Commander Major General (Res.) Amos Lapidot.
The report published by the committee outlined the intolerable outgoing-incoming flight traffic at the airport and pointed out major and elementary failings in Israel's civic aviation safety.
Disasters avoided at last minute (Photo: Yaron Brenner)
"Ben Gurion Airport is the only gateway to Israel and the gate is crippled and malfunctioning," the report stated. "Over the past few years, dramatic developments in global aviation technology and organization have occurred, but here we are in a general coma.
"We purchase advanced planes, but some of their equipment is useless due to the situation on the ground."
Lapidot's descriptions of the way the governmental system operated are reminiscent of the criticism directed at the authorities after the Carmel disaster: "The Israeli system hasn't functioned on a governmental level for 40 years."
As for the finger pointing, he said: "You can look up all the ministers and director-generals during that period." As for the gaps between civil and military aviation, he said: "Israel has many paradoxes, but the greatest one is that we have the best Air Force and a screwed up civil aviation authority."
'Air Force with a country'
One of the main reasons for the state of Israeli aviation has nothing to do with the aviation authorities, which include the civil aviation authorities and the Israel Airports Authority.
Unlike other countries, in Israel the civil airspace is severely limited by the IDF, a problem that minimizes the number of airways that remain available for commercial flights.
This is also one of the reasons why the Nevatim air base runway in the south of Israel has yet to become a civilian runway, in spite of many attempts to turn the military airport with "the longest runway in the Middle East" to an alternative for Ben Gurion Airport.
Airman and attorney Neri Yarkoni, who acted as the head of the civil aviation administration explains: "Our skies are overcrowded, and we are a small country with a big Air Force. My Jordanian counterpart once told me that we are an Air Force with a country rather than a country with an Air Force."
Safer in Ethiopia
The most embarrassing manifestation of the status of Israeli aviation safety has been going on for two years, when the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) removed Israel from the first category on its safety listings.
Israel shares her problematic rating with countries like the Philippines, Ghana, Indonesia and others, so that according to the FAA countries like Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and India are safer to fly in than Israel.
The rating means that trade agreements with Israeli companies flying to the US are limited, as are the destinations to which Israeli companies are able to fly to.
The State has been taking various steps to improve the situation, including refreshing the aviation law which originated in 1927 during the British Mandate and includes hundreds of flight regulations. The law's 180 articles have yet to be finalized and are still under discussion in the Knesset's Finance Committee.
Safer to fly in Ethiopia (Photo Yaron Brenner)
The person behind attempts to spur on the never-ending deliberations over the formation of the law is Transport Minister Yisrael Katz. But MK Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas), Chairman of the Finance Committee, who has been in charge of deliberations over the aviation law for the past few months, has not been responsive:
Incident recommendations not implemented
As if all the reports and committees weren't enough, in September State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss released another critical report. The comptroller found that most of the Lapidot committee recommendations weren't implemented.
Only 29 of the 75 recommendations were fully implemented. The comptroller's report laid bare the organization responsible for the investigation of aerial incidents in Israel.
Chief investigator Itzhak Raz works with volunteers and goes out into the field to examine each accident. The reports he writes up aren't made public; rather, they are published due to sporadic leaks.
What does this mean? That millions of people flying Israel's friendly skies have no opportunity to discover whether the flight they were on was one that involved a life-threatening incident.
Even worse – the comptroller made an alarming discovery: Of the 140 reports written up by Raz in 2006-2009, he presented the relevant authorities with 383 recommendations. 109 were accepted, the rest were rejected. Only 13 were actually implemented.
"The problem is that in Israel dangerous situations are addressed by results rather than severity," said a senior aviation official. Meanwhile, no commercial flight has crashed over Ben Gurion Airport, and not one passenger has been killed, so what's the hurry?
"Show me one person who would have taken the Carmel fire as seriously as everyone is today, if not for the unfortunate incident of the prison guards' bus. That situation prevails in every field in Israel."
Future is bright
Yet in the case of aviation safety at Ben Gurion Airport, a positive change is in the air. The Israel Airport Authority started the year with an unprecedented move of allocating NIS 3 billion (roughly $820 million) in resources.
Out of the sum total, NIS 760 million will be used to upgrade the runway system, NIS 10 million will be used to construct a new control tower and NIS 750 million are earmarked for phase two of Ben Gurion Airport's Terminal 3. It appears that the danger is clear and tangible enough to prompt even Israeli bureaucracy to seek solutions.
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