World News

Flights to Israel buckle up amid Hezbollah threats

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel is requiring that passengers on all incoming flights be confined to their seats in the half-hour before landing as part of heightened precautions against hijacking, aviation security sources said on Friday.

They said the Transport Ministry order, issued to local and foreign airlines on Wednesday, cited threats by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas to avenge the Feb. 12 assassination of their operations chief by waging “open war” against the Jewish state.

“Our new policy is that planes lock their flight-deck doors and activate the ‘please fasten seat belts’ signs when 290 km away from Israel,” one Israeli security source said.

“It’s a precaution against hijackers storming the cockpit in the final approach, given the current terrorist threat level,” the source said, adding that previously it was up to the airlines to decide when to ask passengers to remain seated.

The Transport Ministry had no immediate comment.

Israel has dramatically stepped up security measures since Imad Moughniyah, Hezbollah’s military mastermind, died in a Damascus car bombing last week. Hezbollah and its patron Iran blamed Israel for the killing, though Israel denied involvement.

The new Israeli aviation security standards may remain in force even if Hezbollah’s threats of reprisals are not be borne out and the recent alert level is lowered, sources said.

Israel last year began requiring that all pilots who fly to its airports use the Security Code System (SCS), a local invention designed to ensure any plane commandeered for an al Qaeda-style ramming attack is spotted and intercepted in time.

On most flights, which approach Israel from the west, pilots equipped with the SCS must enter a personalised, technologically secured code when 180 miles out, so that air traffic controllers in Tel Aviv know the cockpit is in the right hands.

Aviation experts have suggested that hijackers could wait for SCS compliance to have been established before striking. Keeping passengers seated until landing would help diminish such a threat, an Israeli security source said.

“The new regulations are definitely linked to our introduction of the SCS,” the source said.

Since the al Qaeda attacks of Sept 11, 2001, the United States has instituted mandatory pre-landing seating regulations for flights to some of its airports. There are also U.S, rules against incoming passengers congregating in plane aisles.