Thursday, November 01, 2012

United States Upgrades Israel's Aviation-Safety Rating

November 1, 2012, 1:08 p.m. ET  

The Wall Street Journal

U.S. regulators said Thursday they had upgraded Israel to a top-tier aviation-safety rating, a move that would allow El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. and its Israeli rivals to boost flights to and from the U.S. and expand partnerships with other carriers.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that the agency restored Israel to the Category 1 safety status it lost in December 2008. The upgrade followed an inspection last month of the country’s facilities and procedures.

Israel’s promotion comes as a number of other countries with large aviation markets—notably Indonesia and the Philippines—seek to regain their own top-tier safety ratings from U.S. and European regulators.

The FAA ratings and those overseen by the European Union apply to countries, rather than individual airlines, and include elements such as airport and air-traffic control procedures and staff training. Countries that lack a Category 1 rating fail to comply with standards laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations.

The U.S. downgrade in 2008 reflected concerns about Israel’s oversight of private aviation, rather than about its commercial carriers or security matters.

“Israel’s civil-aviation authority worked with the FAA on an action plan so that its safety-oversight system fully complies with ICAO’s standards and practices,” the U.S. agency said in its statement.

The upgrade is particularly important for Israel’s three main carriers: El Al, Arkia Israeli Airlines and Israir Airlines, though only El Al currently flies to the U.S. All three airlines were unable to expand service to the U.S. or code-share with U.S. carriers as long as their country lacked Category 1 status.

The trio have faced tougher competition on routes to and from Europe since Israel reached an open-skies aviation deal with the EU earlier this year, ending market-access restrictions. Israel has an open-skies pact with the U.S., but its airlines were unable to take advantage of the opportunities.

North America accounts for about a fifth of El Al’s total capacity, and Tel Aviv to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport is its busiest international route, with service to Newark, N.J., ranking fifth. El Al has a limited alliance with JetBlue Airways Group Inc. that doesn’t include code-sharing, a practice in which carriers cross-sell each others’ tickets.

JetBlue said it had no immediate plans to expand the pact.

An El Al representative wasn’t immediately available for comment.

The restrictions imposed by safety ratings have prompted airlines to look for innovative ways to add service. Cebu Air Inc. of the Philippines last month unveiled plans to fly to Guam and Hawaii, a move that would provide U.S. carriers with a rare instance of competition from Asia’s fast-growing low-cost airline sector.

The company’s Cebu Pacific unit is seeking approval to launch flights from Manila to Guam in April, though it would have to use aircraft and crews rented from another airline based in a country with a Category 1 rating.

The U.S. downgraded the Philippines’ aviation-safety status to Category 2 in January 2008. The EU also included the Philippines on its aviation blacklist, barring any flights to the region by Filipino airlines. The Philippines is the second-most-populous nation, after Indonesia, to lack a Category 1 rating from the FAA.


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