Last week tourists received a glimpse of what the future holds at Ben Gurion airport. During the busiest season for Israel's airport, a wildcat strike by Israel Airports Authority workers led to major delays in loading and unloading suitcases. More than one thousand passengers were reportedly delayed by about two hours until they received their baggage, following the protest about workforce shortages required to cope with peak overcrowding.
In July, overcrowding at the airport exceeded all records with 2.5 million passengers passing through the airport. In 2023, 25 million passengers are expected to use the airport, beating the pre-pandemic 2019 record.
"Ben Gurion airport is unable to cope with more flights and this will translate into higher fares - we are already there," Ministry of Finance accountant general division head of infrastructure and PPP projects Shai Sastiel recently told the Knesset Negev and Galilee Committee.
This was by no means the first discussion in the Knesset about the overcrowding at Ben Gurion airport, and it won't be the last either. Time and time again, professionals come to Jerusalem and warn of the imminent chaos but the years pass, the chaos is already here, and there is no solution in sight.
Yet plans for a major international airport in the north or south continue to be delayed. "If an additional airport is not built, ultimately Ben Gurion airport will explode," says the Israel Airports Authority.
The dispute that prevents another airport being built
The need to build another airport in Israel is agreed by everybody and in 1997 when the overall plan was approved for Ben Gurion airport, it pointed out that a second major airport would be required.
In 2005, the option of building an airport at Nebatim in the south was examined but the Ministry of Defense vetoed the idea because it was too close to the Nebatim air force base, and a nearby civilian airport would reduce activities.
But not everybody accepted the Israel Air Force position and local authorities in the south and many MKs insisted that there was no alternative.
Some proposed an airport at Ramat David in the north. But Itzik Holavsky, head of the Megiddo Regional Council says, "There is no reason to destroy the Jezreel Valley and put a huge airport there in the heart of the valley, which is the cradle of settlement and agriculture in the State of Israel. There is an excellent solution in the north for an airport in Haifa. You just need to extend the runway a little."
But former director general of the Israel Planning Administration at the Ministry of Interior insists that Haifa's existing airport is not really a solution. "There are geographical features like Mount Carmel and critical infrastructures like Haifa Port that cannot be moved. Haifa could not function as a complementary airport to Ben Gurion."
However, despite everything it is clear that the time has come to end the procrastination. In 2014, the cabinet passed a decision to build a second major international airport in Israel. In 2016, the National Commission for Planning and Building discussed the matter and in 2017, it decided that a second major airport would not be enough and two more are required - at Nebatim and Ramat David.
Since then there has been foot dragging," observes Zilber. "The previous government set up another committee, which was completely unnecessary, because it is clear to everyone that the best place for a second airport is Ramat David."
Ilana Shafran, director of the transport department at the planning Administration says, "The airport at Ramat David is being delayed because of local opposition. This reaches the ministers who establish more and more committees that check the same things every time and reach the same conclusions. Every time the new minister sets up another committee. There was a committee in 2017, then a review by Regev, then Michaeli, and now Regev again has not yet made a decision.
"Approval of a second airport should have been given yesterday. Even if we approve Ramat David tomorrow, the first plane will only land there in 10 years."
How many passengers can Ben Gurion airport hold?
After all the foot dragging, the question is when will Ben Gurion airport reach bursting point? Zilber said in 2021 that full capacity would be 30 million passengers per year and if it had not be for the Covid pandemic it would have already reached the limit. Sapir Ifergan, transport coordinator in the budgets division of the Ministry of Finance agrees.
Ifergan recently told the Knesset Negev and Galilee Committee that Ben Gurion airport can only hold 30 million passengers per year. "Building an airport takes at least a decade, and by then we will reach 60 or 70 million passengers a year."
On the other hand, the Israel Airports Authority is a little more optimistic and believes that Ben Gurion airport's current capacity is somewhere between 30 and 40 million, but we will probably get there sooner or later.
And what will happen when we reach these numbers? According to Shafran, "The capacity has not been set for Ben Gurion airport. It's not that once they reach a certain number they will stop using the airport. The question is how the airport will function and what effect of the airport will have on the environment."
Shafran points out that the main bottleneck at the airport is the issue of noise with the number of flights restricted due to the environmental objectives to about 35-40 million passengers a year. There is a national outline plan that stipulates very specific requirements on the operation of the airport including which directions the planes can arrive from. Today we are promoting a plan that will cancel these specific instructions, and instead set an environmental target for noise."
But it is clear that even if the plan is approved, it is only postponing the inevitable and not a real solution. The long-term solution is at least one additional airport. "The rate of growth of flights to and from abroad is crazy," says Shafran. "In any calculation, Israel cannot meet the numbers. No matter how much we streamline, it is impossible to reach 80 million passengers a year as predicted for 2050. And even if that somehow was possible, it would not be possible for central Israel to absorb all the air traffic. You need two airports, not just one."
Sastiel agrees with the assessment. In the most recent Knesset debate he said, "We are talking about an expected demand of 40 million passengers per year between 2030 and 2036, and it is expected to increase to 60-74 million by 2050. This means that there is a very great need. It is not even just one airport, but possibly even two. Our position at the moment is to promote two airports, both in the north and in the south."
It is likely that the crowding is already expressed in fares
Meanwhile, the crowding at Ben Gurion airport is growing and the Israel Airports Authority is trying to prepare additional infrastructure. In March 2024, Terminal 3 will be extended and work will start on a completely new terminal.
How much will the demand be next year? The Israel Airports Authority is not prepared to say. "It is still too early to tell, and there is a danger of a recession in 2024, especially due to the recent instability. If this scenario materializes, we will probably see fewer flights abroad and use the new infrastructure only in the coming years."
The increasing crowding also of course have consequences for all of our pockets. The higher demand, the limit on the number of flights taking off and landing and population growth does not bode well for fares that Israelis will have to pay for flights. As Sastiel said in the Knesset debate, "this will translate directly to fares." In such a situation, the reality to which we have become accustomed to over the last decade when flights have turned from a luxury product to a much more accessible one may change.
Even the current congestion may also be reflected fares. The Central Bureau of Statistics travel price index, which is almost exclusively air fares, was 20% higher last June than it was before the Covid pandemic in June 2019. This is of course also related to the higher fares worldwide due to great demand for tourism post-Covid. "The level of demand is crazy," says the Israel Airports Authority, "and fares will remain high until the end of the tourist season in October."
"It's not a matter of left or right we're all caught in the crowding"
Either way, the current situation sets off warning lights. "If the additional airports continue to be put off, we will very quickly reach the situation of a third world country," Zilber says. "And this is true not only in aviation infrastructures, but in all of our infrastructures. In the end, it's not even a matter of right or left, we all face the same traffic jams, and this requires the infrastructure issue to become a top priority. The budgets too."
All the professionals and MKs agree that immediate action is required to prevent a future catastrophe. Now the responsibility belongs to the government, which will have to make unpleasant decisions for the residents of the north, and the IDF in the south, or maybe both. At the rate at which the airport congestion in Israel is increasing, they need to make a decision as quickly as possible.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 6, 2023.
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