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Diplomatic Standoff: U.S. Demands American Carriers Be Allowed to Operate Repatriation Flights to Israel

Diplomatic Standoff: U.S. Demands American Carriers Be Allowed to Operate Repatriation Flights to Israel

Officials at Israel’s Ministry of Transport are said to be holding crisis meetings on Sunday to discuss how to respond to an official complaint from the United States accusing Israel of giving flag carrier El Al Airlines an unfair advantage over U.S.-based rivals.

The U.S. Department of Transport (DOT) filed the complaint after Israel all but closed its borders last month to nearly all air traffic in an attempt to keep mutant COVID-19 variants out of the country. Tel Aviv-based El Al, however, has been given special permission to operate a small number of repatriation flights to help get stranded Israeli citizens home.

Arnold Aaron /

Two such rescue flights departed New York JFK bound for Tel Aviv last Tuesday. Several U.S. airlines are believed to have taken part in the tender process to operate the flights but Israel’s Ministry of Transport has so far only granted special flight permissions to El Al.

The flag carrier also won the tender process to operate repatriation flights from Dubai – beating local carriers Arkia and Israir Airlines.

Amongst U.S. airlines who have shown an interest in operating one-off repatriation flights on behalf of the Israeli government is Atlanta-based airline Delta. The outright rejection of Delta’s application has led senior DOT officials to allege a breach of Open Skies agreements that allow the free movement of flights between Israel and the United States.

The standoff comes amid a frosty start to the relationship between the Biden White House and Jeresuleum. After more than three weeks in office, President Biden is yet to phone Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House insists Biden will get round to phoning Bibi soon but observers fear its a sign of a more fraught relationship to come.

Israel effectively shut Tel Aviv Ben Gurion international airport on January 25 for an initial period of just two weeks. The closure has since been extended until February 20 but Health Ministry officials are now calling on the border restrictions to be kept in place for at least another month.

U.S. carriers have been jostling with one another for market share on flights to Tel Aviv. Earlier this month, American Airlines said it would launch direct flights to Israel from its Miami hub beginning June.

Photo Credit: Shai Pal on Unsplash

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