ANALYSIS: Israeli open skies debate ramps up

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While Israel has taken formative steps towards liberalising its skies through a deal with the European Union, uncertainties over when and how this will happen continue to cloud airlines' horizons.

An open skies deal allowing reciprocal access between EU and Israeli carriers has been initialled but cannot come into effect until it is signed by both parties. It is planned for introduction over the next five years through a gradual easing of restrictions in the EU-Israel air transport market in order to be fully open by the summer season in 2017.

Yet after a decision from the Israeli government to postpone signing until after the election on 22 January means that this is still yet to happen.

The potential of the Israeli market is not lost on Europe's low-cost carriers. EasyJet already already operates 17 weekly flights to Tel Aviv from Basel and Geneva in Switzerland and Luton and Manchester in the UK. It says it is "fully committed to expanding our services to and from Israel from destinations across Europe and we urge the EU to implement the agreement quickly".

EasyJet routes to Israel (Feb 2013)
 Source: Innovata Flightmaps Analytics

Budget rival Ryanair is another to see a huge opportunity in the opening of the EU-Israeli market. Its interest in expanding to Europe's neighbouring regions is underlined by this year's launch of bases in Fez and Marrakech in Morocco - which already has open skies with the EU - but airline deputy chief executive Michael Cawley questions when EU-Israel open skies will come.

"Israel has phenomenal potential," he says. "The problem is the old Israeli government were trying to do two things; protect El Al and get the benefits of liberalising their skies. You cannot control both. In Morocco they exposed Royal Air Maroc to competition and they have coped with it moderately well."

Peter Morris, chief economist of Flightglobal consultancy Ascend says in allowing open skies Israel will subject its airlines to the same pressure seen in Morocco and "throughout the smaller European countries and indeed the smaller countries within the Middle East". He says that the situation that the country's flag carrier El Al is in "is probably quite similar to Royal Jordanian" after Jordan negotiated a similar aviation agreement with the EU.

"Inevitably when you're talking about a carrier that has to perform to a much higher level of security there's a cost involved," he says. This additional expenditure takes the airline's operating cost even further beyond the likes of EasyJet which already operates services to Israel from the UK and Switzerland.

El Al says it does not fear open skies as the country's aviation market has already witnessed an increase of foreign carriers, while capacity of non-Israeli carriers has more than doubled during the last five years. "El Al is not against the open skies agreement between the EU and Israel, but we do expect that the Israeli government will provide equitable and fair conditions that apply to all the carriers," says an El Al spokeswoman

Among the issues it would like to see resolved are "the security costs borne by El Al, slot limitations to European airports and anti-trust immunity given to foreign carriers that is even applicable in Israel, but not to Israeli carriers" over fare and schedule coordination as well as incentive commission programmes. "Once we shall have these issues dealt with in a proper and equitable manner we will welcome the open skies agreement allowing El Al to compete on equal footing," she says.

A policy of not flying on the Jewish Sabbath, a weekly holy period which runs from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, would also place El Al at a competitive disadvantage in a liberalised environment, says Morris. Under Israeli law, the carrier is permitted to operate on the Sabbath if it chooses.

However Morris does not believe that the opening of the Israeli market necessarily means that El Al is doomed, citing Aer Lingus as an example of an airline facing significant low-cost and network carrier competition threatening both ends of its model. "It's managed to turn round its business and perform really well in recent years," he says adding El Al can do the same, but says in order to do so must synchronise a whole raft of different strategies.

 El Al short-haul network (Feb 2013)
 Source: Innovata Flightmaps Analytics

Fears over the impact of open skies with the EU without action to level the playing field is a concern to another planned Israeli operation. Michael Weinstein founder and president of Israeli start-up LeadAir, whose launch plans are on hold, says if an EU-Israeli open skies deal is to take effect, then the Israeli government must ensure its airlines "can compete on equal terms".

He says one of the principal issues faced by Israeli carriers is security expenditure. "We are suffering from security costs which European airlines do not have. This is cost and logistics as security personnel in airports often cannot handle more than one Israeli airline at a time," he says.

Weinstein suggests the Israeli government could also level the playing field is by removing restrictions preventing crew on its carriers from flying more than eight hours at a time when "a European airline can fly for 10 hours without restrictions with a single crew".

He does not see any prospect of LeadAir, which was founded in 2009 and received its AOC in June 2010, starting operations in the near future while he sees prospect of open skies with the EU clouding the future of Israeli commercial aviation. "Until the government of Israel will help us to compete on an equal footing, then we better not be there [in an open skies arrangement]," he says.