LOD, Israel (JTA) – Natali Cohen and Snir Shahar discovered via email around midnight that their flight from Tel Aviv to Barcelona was cancelled.
They’d been looking forward to two weeks exploring the Catalan city and getting a break from the conflict in Israel. Shahar, 23, had just taken a standardized test to apply for college. Cohen’s brother is an Israeli soldier serving in Gaza; she hoped the trip would let her “air out a little” from the tension.
Instead, the couple sat in a waiting area on the ground floor of Ben Gurion International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, their suitcases in front of them, following a sleepless night spent on the phone with their airline, Vueling, and a few airport officials.
“They’re sending us back and forth,” Cohen, 22, said as Shahar sat with his cellphone glued to his ear. “We wanted to get out of here. It hurts, but it’s impossible. They won’t let us.”
Cohen and Shahar were two of the thousands of passengers whose flights to and from Israel were disrupted after a bevy of North American and European airlines – including Air Canada – cancelled the flights arriving in and departing from Israel on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority suspended all flights by U.S. airlines to and from Ben Gurion for up to 24 hours (since extended a further 24 hours) after a rocket fired from Gaza destroyed a house in Yehud, a city near Israel’s main airport. Europe’s aviation authority issued a similar order, and many airlines have released their own notices on suspending flights.
Responding to the cancellations, El Al, as well as smaller Israeli carriers Arkia and Israir, increased their flight volumes.
A screen with a list of canceled flights greeted travelers entering Ben Gurion on Wednesday. Many Israelis consider international travel a vital escape valve to living in a small and often tense country – even when there are no wars happening.
Eyal Satat, 28, was at the airport with his fiancée, Jasmine Granas, 27, flying to Cyprus for their wedding on Friday. Their flight on Cyprus Airways was canceled at 10 pm Tuesday, but Satat kept searching until he found an Arkia flight for Wednesday afternoon.
“It was stressful when it happened,” Satat said. “We need to keep living. I feel much better now because we’re about to fly. But I didn’t stop for a minute. I knew I was going to do it.”
Usually full and bustling, Ben Gurion’s ground floor was nearly empty just after noon on Wednesday. Nanu Isaac, an eight-year veteran of the airport’s cleaning staff, leaned against a post and chatted with a co-worker. The floors were shiny and there was nothing to do.
“We came to work and it was empty,” Isaac said. “It’s better when it’s full and there’s work. This is boring, of course, but what can I do?”
Several Israelis chafed at what they viewed as North American and European overreactions. Pushback to the cancellations also came from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who flew to Israel on El Al on Tuesday night and called the flight ban “a mistake that hands Hamas an undeserved victory and should be lifted immediately.”
“This evening I will be flying on El Al to Tel Aviv to show solidarity with the Israeli people and to demonstrate that it is safe to fly in and out of Israel,” Bloomberg said in a statement Tuesday. “Ben Gurion is the best protected airport in the world and El Al flights have been regularly flying in and out of it safely.”
Nathan Booth, 29, an English volunteer at Kibbutz Yotvata, near Israel’s southern tip, thought the short-term cautionary measure of canceling flights wasn’t surprising in light of the recent shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine, possibly by pro-Russian separatists.
“If it goes on longer than 24 or 48 hours it will be an overreaction,” said Booth, whose EasyJet flight for a friend’s wedding in London on Saturday had been canceled. “Israel needs to send a signal that it’s still open for business and safe for tourists.”
Through a nearby doorway, Israelis returning home said they felt a mix of pressure in returning to a war zone and relief in being close to family.
“I’m stressed because there are fewer people here, so there’s apparently something to be scared of,” said Guy Tayar, 18, returning from a post-high school graduation vacation with friends in Greece. But in Israel, he said, “I feel they take care of me.”
By mid-afternoon, the airport had grown more crowded as a string of El Al flights took off and landed despite the dearth of other traffic. Tourists were concerned with the usual things – where to get cash, charge phones, find a taxi.
For those hoping to depart, all they could do was wait.
Booth sat at a cafe, phone in hand and headphones in his ears, trying to decide whether to buy a book from a nearby shop. In the evening, an EasyJet representative arrived at the airport to give him a voucher for room and board for the night.
“They’re putting me up in a hotel and paying for my dinner,” he said. “There’s nothing else you can do but kill time.”