The Biden Administration at the weekend warned that Israel was courting a crisis by permitting only its own national airline, El Al, to return stranded Israelis to the Jewish state amid an ongoing Corona lockdown.
Israel and the United States have an “open skies” agreement according to which neither may give preferential treatment to their own national carriers, but rather must facilitate open competition between all airlines.
Jerusalem argues that the Corona crisis is a unique situation, and that the open skies deal shouldn’t apply as Israel works to get all its citizens home and isolated in a manner that doesn’t risk the rest of the population.
The US Department of Transportation disagrees, and has filed an official complaint accusing Israel of “anti-competitive practices” for not permitting American carriers to participate in these “rescue flights.” If the complaint is escalated to “Phase 2” under the open skies agreement, El Al would be barred from landing at airports in the United States.
Channel 12 News reported that Biden White House officials sent a message to Israel demanding to know, “Why do you want a crisis with the new [US] government? Let our planes fly to Israel.”
In fact, American planes are still flying to Israel, but have been restricted to cargo service. On January 25, in response to rising COVID-19 infection rates, Israel shuttered Ben Gurion Airport to all passenger traffic. But, the thousands of Israelis who were already abroad needed a way home, so El Al was tasked with retrieving them.
Under the current regulations, these El Al rescue flights are the only flights permitted to land with passengers at Ben Gurion Airport until the closure ends.