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Israel flight ban leaves travelers scrambling

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg might be able to shuttle over to Tel Aviv on El Al Airlines but other travelers had their plans snarled after many airlines indefinitely suspended flights to Israel.

Passengers check a departure time flight board displaying various cancellations at Ben Gurion International airport, near Tel Aviv, on July 23, 2014.
Gil Cohen Magen | Getty Images
Passengers check a departure time flight board displaying various cancellations at Ben Gurion International airport, near Tel Aviv, on July 23, 2014.

Everything from Bar Mitzvahs to luxury vacations to pilgrimages had to be put on hold after a rocket fell Tuesday within miles of the Ben Gurion International Airport, prompting the FAA to enact a 24-hour ban on U.S. carrier flights to Israel. Some airlines suspended their flights "until further notice." Several European airlines joined in temporarily suspending flights as well.

The service disruption forced thousands of travelers to scramble to change their plans. As many as ten flights operate daily between the U.S. and Israel. Nearly 70 international airlines operate scheduled flights into Ben Gurion.

As soon as his United Airlines flight from Denver to Newark International Airport touched down Tuesday morning, Simon Schwartz checked his telephone for messages.

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"I'm going on a mission to Israel with a non-profit group and had put a note about my trip on Facebook," said Schwartz. "When I landed there were already eight or nine comments asking me if I was still going. The last comment had a link to the FAA statement saying flights to Israel had been halted for at least 24 hours."

At the airline customer service desk in Newark, Schwartz was given a reservation on to Tel Aviv for Wednesday and a hotel room for the night. "Some other people in line didn't get hotel rooms," he said.

Travelers already worried

Even before the FAA's action Tuesday, luxury travel adviser Jack Ezon was fielding calls from worried clients. "Last Thursday I got a call from a client who needs to move his Bar Mitzvah from Israel to another destination," he said, "like Tahiti or South Africa."

On Tuesday the calls were from clients wondering if they should change their plans. "I told them I understand their concern, but we don't know what will happen. So we made a lot of back-up plans," said Ezon.

"This is a nerve-racking moment for many people, but life is going on," said U.S. spokesman for the Israel Ministry of Tourism Geoffrey Weill. "We've been through this before and it does bounce back."

Weill said during 2013, Israel welcomed 3.6 million visitors from around the world—an all-time record—with 20 percent of those visitors coming from the United States. During the first half of 2014, he said, tourism was up 15 percent.

"Thing were looking good," said Weill. "This will change that."

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The direct financial impact on the airline industry from the canceled flights "should be minimal," said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst with the Atmosphere Research Group. That is, if the FAA ban does last just 24 hours and U.S. and other airlines resume their scheduled flights when the ban is lifted. The Federal Aviation Administration will be reviewing the ban on Wednesday.

After that, "airlines will substitute smaller aircraft, reduce flight frequencies, or both, if they see a noticeable decline in their traffic to or from Israel," said Harteveldt.

Not all airlines have canceled their Tel Aviv service.

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El Al, the national airline of Israel, is continuing to fly a total of five flights daily, except Saturday, to Tel Aviv from Los Angeles, JFK and Newark International Airport

Bloomberg flew one of the flights from New York to Tel Aviv in a move meant to show air travel to the country was safe.

Read MoreFAA shuts air route from US to Israel for 24 hours

Since July 9th, "when all this started," said airline spokeswoman Sheryl Stein, El Al passengers have been able to change flight plans to or from Israel for up to six months with no penalty.

Flights are quite full now because the airline is accommodating passengers from other airlines.

"My sister's flight home from Israel to the United States was canceled, but she is now on an El Al flight, which is not canceled," said Tani Isaac, via Twitter.

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"El Al maintains the highest level of security at all times and we never stop flying," said Stein, "even in a challenging situation like this."

—By Harriet Baskas, NBC News'

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