British Airways suspends all flights to Tel Aviv after plane turns around

By Sarah Young, Joanna Plucinska and David Shepardson

LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -British Airways said Wednesday it would suspend all its flights to Tel Aviv after it diverted a flight from London back to Britain citing security concerns in Israel.

Separately, Virgin Atlantic said it will halt all flights to and from Tel Aviv for the next 72 hours, citing the safety of passengers and crew.

A spokesperson for Israel’s airports authority said rockets were flying around Tel Aviv at the time of the British Airways diversion, but there was no immediate threat to the flight or to Ben Gurion Airport.

She said the return to Britain was the pilot’s decision and that no other flights were diverted.

Governments and airlines have sought to add flights from Israel to evacuate their country’s citizens, while Israeli airlines have sought to fly reservists back to Israel.

Aviation authorities have cautioned airlines flying to Israel but haven’t grounded flights, though some experts have warned that the current airspace situation was risky due to ongoing rocket attacks.

“Safety is always our highest priority and we’ve taken the decision to return our Tel Aviv flight to Heathrow (Airport),” a spokesperson for British Airways said.

British Airways had operated a single daily flight to Tel Aviv before the suspension, according to flight tracking website FlightRadar.

Since the surprise attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas on Israel on Saturday, many international airlines have suspended flights to and from Tel Aviv.

Flydubai said Wednesday it will reduce flights to Tel Aviv from four to two per day.

With British Airways’ suspension, no IAG-owned airlines are now offering flights to Tel Aviv, a spokesperson for the group said.

Flightradar showed British Airways flight BA165 had almost reached Tel Aviv before turning back to London.

The U.S. government has been in talks with airlines encouraging them to resume flights, the State Department said.

The department said Wednesday it was exploring options including charter flights to help U.S. citizens travel to nearby countries where they could catch commercial flights to the U.S.

Chicago-based United Airlines said Wednesday it will fly two additional roundtrip flights between Newark, New Jersey and Athens in the coming days to help Americans who are trying to return home from Israel.

(Reporting by Sarah Young and Joanna Plucinska and David Shepardson in Washington, writing by Sachin Ravikumar; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Jonathan Oatis, Rod Nickel, Elaine Hardcastle and Cynthia Osterman)