Last year, an analysis revealed that fewer than half of Israeli government decisions were actually implemented, even if partially implemented decisions were included. One decision, though, passes the test with flying colours: the 2013 undertaking to open Israel's skies.

That led to an open-skies deal with the European Union, but the implications are much wider.

It was Israel's transport minister, Yisrael Katz, who initiated the open-skies policy. He not only believed in it but was ready to fight the expected opposition from the three Israeli airlines: El Al, Israir and Arkia.

"I knew that this will be a fierce battle, and it was," Katz tells FlightGlobal. "The Israeli airlines, the workers' unions – all came to my office with forecasts of a disaster that will leave many thousands unemployed, and Israel with no Israeli airline."

The move to open skies resulted in a two-day strike by the Israeli airlines, but the only concession made by the government was an agreement to cover 97.5% of the security measures taken by the nation's carriers.

In 2016, some 17.9 million passengers passed through Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, across about 128,000 flights.

International passenger numbers totalled 17.3 million, up 11% from 2015, while cross-border flights numbered some 121,000, an increase of 8.2%.

"The open-skies agreement was implemented gradually, and this year there are no limits on flights to and from Israel, except of course the capacity of the airports," says Katz. While the agreement was specifically signed with the EU, he notes that "Air India, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are planning to fly to Israel this year" while "Hainan Airlines is also operating on the Bejing-Tel Aviv route and other Chinese airlines might join from Shanghai".

Low-cost airlines such as EasyJet and Ryanair are meanwhile expanding their operations in the Israeli market – Ryanair will operate 19 routes to the country this winter – and there are signs that more traffic will come from North and South America. “We have an air agreement with the US and, even in this excellent market, I can say that more US airlines may come," says Katz. "The effect is surprising even for me [who] believed in the good effects of the open-skies policy."

Israeli airlines carried 6.75 million passengers in 2016, which is 39% of all travellers passing through Ben Gurion airport and an increase of 14% on the previous year. "The numbers tell the full story: the Israeli airlines not only were not harmed, they kept their slice of the cake – but now it is a bigger slice," says Katz.

El Al was privatised in 2008 but is still considered the national carrier. With this unofficial title and a strong lobby behind it, El Al has led the fight against the open-skies policy.

The airline has warned of a "black future" under open skies. Still, in 2015 is signed a contract to buy nine Boeing 787s, taking options for 13 more.

"Very soon, the Israeli airlines came to the conclusion that the open skies benefit them, but they will have to compete with more frequencies and better equipment," says Katz. "El Al, for example, formed its 'Up' brand that is an answer to the low-cost carriers that began to fly to Israel, and these flights are full."

Another major effect of the open-skies policy is the accelerated construction of a second international airport in southern Israel near Eilat, the Red Sea resort. Ramon airport is named after Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003, and his son Asaf, a pilot in the Israeli air force who died in the crash of a Lockheed Martin F-16A in 2009.

International flights to Eilat currently use the Israeli air force base in Ovda, some 40km from the city. "Starting at the end of this year, the new airport will begin to operate and will boost further the effects of the open-skies policy," says Katz.

Airlines that operate to Ovda enjoy an exemption from all airport charges. "This will continue when the new airport is operated," Katz reveals.

The exemption has had a major effect on the international traffic that lands in southern Israel. Last year, 128,000 passengers went through the civil terminal at Ovda. "This number represents a traffic increase of 112%," says Katz.

He adds that the prices of international flights operated from Ovda have plummeted. "The prices to destinations in Africa went down by 69%, the prices to eastern Europe by 29%, and to western Europe by 18%. I expect that this trend will continue and even intensify, when the operation will move to the new airport."

Katz says Ramon airport will contain separate sections for domestic and international passengers. Amenities will include duty-free shops, restaurants and other services.The terminal will occupy 30,000m2 and will have 32 check-in counters.

"The runway and taxiway are 3,600m long," says the Israel Airports Authority. "The runway is 45m wide, with an additional 7.5m on both sides of the runway shoulders. The tarmac will include 16 aprons for general aviation, nine aprons for large and widebody aircraft, and additional parking for turboprop and smaller planes."

While Ramon will mainly handle flights to Eilat, Israel needs a "complementary airport" as annual passenger numbers at Ben Gurion are set to reach 20 million in a few years' time, Katz argues. "We have managed to get the approval of the Israeli air force and will use its Ramat David air base for this purpose. This airport will be called Galil as it is in the Israeli Galilee region and will also be a state-of-the-art facility."

Given the target of rapidly growing traffic on international flights to Israel, the need for new airports is obvious. "We anticipate more airlines to operate in the Israeli market and I want to be ready for this traffic," says Katz.

Source: Cirium Dashboard