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Wed, Apr 20, 2005

Israel Blasted For Fuel Contamination

Aircraft Temporarily Grounded, But Some Flew With Bad Fuel

The biggest controversy in Israel right now has nothing to do with the Palestinians or disbanding Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. The biggest controversy is about fuel -- aviation fuel.

Thousands of passengers were grounded Monday and Tuesday after line crews discovered the Jet-A stored in tanks at Ben-Gurion International Airport was contaminated. Even though airport officials moved fast to ground those planes that had tanked up before take-off, some apparently made it into the air before the discovery. How many isn't yet known.

One Israeli newspaper said its reporters learned that the fuel contamination was suspected by airport workers as early as Monday afternoon. But several hours apparently passed before flights were grounded and fuel tanks pumped out.

"We were made aware that there was a problem late at night - not in the afternoon," said Yoav Levy, El Al's deputy general manager for commerce and aviation relations. He told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, "Some of the planes that were due to take off had already been filled with fuel. We very quickly got organized and started to bring in fuel using tankers belonging to the Ashdod oil refinery. We managed to refuel some of the long-distance flights, particularly those heading for the Far East. Other flights were forced to land in Cyprus and Turkey to refuel, and to continue from there."

Avi Friedman, head of the foreign airlines association in Israel and CEO of Continental's operation in the country called the incident "a disgrace. It's scandalous that in Israel in 2005, they suddenly find all kinds of foreign elements in jet fuel. Thousands of passengers have been inconvenienced, and the airlines have sustained financial losses. We will demand compensation."

Continental aircraft operating from Ben-Gurion were forced to hop over to Ovda Air Base in the Negev Desert before they could take on fuel and continue to their destinations.

"The runway at Ovda is too short for a wide-bodied plane such as the Boeing 777 we operate on the Israel line," said Friedman. "So we were forced to take off from Ovda without filling the planes, and land again in London for another refueling, before continuing to Newark. All of these landings and take-offs cost a lost of money in fees for airport use, as well as the cost of the fuel. In addition, our air crews had to work for more hours than usual. The delays caused by having to land to refuel left the company's international schedule in tatters, since planes landing from Israel are then scheduled to continue to another destination."

Were any aircraft or passengers endangered by the contamination? A spokesman for Israel's Airports Authority vehemently insisted there was not. "Despite the inconvenience caused to passengers, safety concerns are our top priority. Fuel that is contaminated can cause severe problems for airplanes and can endanger the passengers. The Airports Authority has contingency plans for just such exceptional circumstances, which involve refueling planes in Cyprus."

The investigation into how the fuel became contaminated -- especially in light of the fact it's pumped from the refinery to the airport in a dedicated, underground pipeline -- was just getting underway. Officials set a May 31st deadline for release of the preliminary report.



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