Passengers boarding an El Al flight at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport were settling into their seats, when a civil defense siren howled.
The passengers all piled out and into a shelter.
That was the experience for one group of passengers trying to fly out of the airport on Tuesday, hours after a rocket launched from Gaza landed just a mile away.
Israeli air carriers like El Al appeared to be the only ones flying in and out of Ben Gurion, near Tel Aviv, on Tuesday. Most of the rest of the world’s airlines suspended flights in the wake of the rocket attack.
That didn’t stop U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry from landing there Wednesday on an urgent mission to try to stop all hostilities immediately. The airline suspensions didn’t affect his flight because he’s on a military plane.
The flight suspensions have left many passengers vexed and stranded in Tel Aviv. Some others, who flew out on Israeli carriers, had to run for cover before takeoff when sirens went off.
“You had to run for about a minute to get to shelter and just wait there for about 10 minutes,” a passenger arriving in New York from Tel Aviv told CNN affiliate NY1. “It was nerve-racking, actually.”
Then the all-clear sounded.
A single rocket
Earlier in the day, a rocket struck about a mile from Ben Gurion’s runways, close enough to torpedo its timetables, transforming them into a long list of canceled flights.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration didn’t like the close call and ordered U.S. airlines to stay away from Israel’s runways for 24 hours. The European Aviation Safety Agency has advised European airlines to do the same.
British Airways disregarded the advice and flew into Israel on Tuesday.
US Airways had planned to resume flights from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv by late Thursday. But on Wednesday, it dropped that idea, said airline spokesman Casey Norton, and will continue to wait for a nod from the FAA.
After the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, jittery passengers understood the FAA decision.
“You have a rocket and you bring down 300 people at one shot,” one passenger said. But it didn’t stop her from boarding her El Al flight.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was less understanding of the FAA’s call and climbed aboard an El Al flight to Tel Aviv to protest against it.
“The flight restrictions are a mistake that hand Hamas an undeserved victory and should be lifted immediately,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “I strongly urge the FAA to reverse course and permit U.S. airlines to fly to Israel.”
Israel: Keep coming
That’s also the official stance of Israel.
Israel’s missile defense system was tracking Tuesday’s rocket, but the military chose not to shoot it down because Israeli trackers knew the airport wouldn’t be hit, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday.
“Any incoming rocket that would hit the airport … would immediately be taken out by our system,” Regev said.
No airline, therefore, need fear using Ben Gurion Airport, Regev said.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Israel concurs. More than 2,000 rockets have been fired out of Gaza and 6,000 flights have arrived and departed, but not one rocket has struck the airport, CAAI Director Giora Romm said.
“And it is not a miracle and not a trick. We know how to defend Ben Gurion, period,” Romm told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Romm is a former Israeli air force commander.
He wants the FAA to reverse its order. The agency is to reassess it as the 24-hour period runs down.
The FAA shouldn’t base its decision on one rocket, Romm said. The airport adjusts flight paths and schedules to stay out of Hamas rocket fire, he said.
On Wednesday, the Transport Ministry ordered the opening of the small Uvda airport in the far southeast of Israel. Despite the cancellations, Ben Gurion was expecting 206 flights on Wednesday, the ministry said.
Canceling flights to Israel is a serious blow to Israel’s economy, Romm added.
Tourism is a major source of income for Israel. Last year, the country received a record 3.5 million visitors, according to its Central Bureau of Statistics.
Before the recent violence, the bureau reported a record 1.4 million visitors for the first half of 2014, but the violence will likely put a damper on tourism.
It’s very unusual for the FAA to prohibit U.S. carriers from flying to a particular airport, said Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general.
“In the past when the FAA has done it there have been diplomatic consequences,” she said.
The MH17 effect
But the downing of MH17 over the conflict area in Ukraine last week is fresh on many minds.
And at least 41 rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel on Tuesday, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
Operations at the airport in Tel Aviv continued Tuesday after the FAA order, CNN’s Atika Shubert said. She watched from the airport as a rocket fired from Gaza was intercepted nearby.
“This is the environment that the planes are flying in and out of,” she said.
Stranded U.S. rabbi
Rabbi Shalom Lewis, whose synagogue is in an Atlanta suburb, was stuck at Ben Gurion with a group of American travelers all looking for a way to get home to the United States. But none of them was running scared over missiles.
“Everyone one of them was just aggravated by the inability to get home easily, but nobody was afraid,” Lewis told NY1.
He was booked on a Delta flight to Atlanta via New York. Early Wednesday, Lewis still didn’t know how he would get home.