Can Ramon Airport breathe new life into Eilat?

Ramon Airport Eilat Photo: Eyal Izhar

The new airport offers exemptions from landing fees and Israeli government subsidies per passenger.

After years of delay, the first international civil aviation airport to open since Israel was established will finally open tomorrow, January 21. The Ramon Airport in Timna, close to Eilat, whose construction cost over NIS 1.7 billion, is designed to eventually serve 4.5 million passengers a year. The airport will go into operation gradually, starting with internal flights (the first flights by Arkia Airlines Ltd. and Israir Airlines and Tourism Ltd. are scheduled to land on February 4 in the evening). International activity will be added starting in September-October, with direct flights between Eilat and Europe now landing at and taking off from Ovda Airport being moved to Ramon Airport.

Ramon Airport is beautiful and impressive, but is the NIS 1.7 billion investment worthwhile?

Given the consistent increase in international passenger traffic to and from Israel, the decision to build another airport was only a question of time. Ben Gurion Airport finished 2018 with 22.3 million roundtrip passengers, a number projected to reach 25 million at the end of 2019 and continue increasing. This means that within a few years, the national airport will be unable to contain the number of visitors. Incidentally, this pattern is not unique to Israel. More people all over the world are flying, and civil aviation organizations warn that many countries are not preparing to build or upgrade airports, which is liable to result in heavy loads and flight delays.

Whom will the new airport serve, and what are its consequences? Five questions about the change that will lead to the closing of Eilat Airport and could change the face of tourism in Israel's southernmost city.

1. Will Ramon Airport make construction of an airport in the Jezreel Valley or Nevatim superfluous?

For the Ministry of Transport and the Israel Airports Authority, the main purpose of Ramon Airport is to replace the airports in Eilat and Ovda, not Ben Gurion Airport, although the number of parking spaces for airplanes was increased from 30 to 60 during the airport's construction and the runways were lengthened to 3.6 kilometers in order to accommodate landings and takeoffs of large aircraft used on trans-Atlantic flights. Ramon Airport is intended to serve as an alternative for landings in an emergency. Today, flights scheduled to land in Israel that encounter technical difficulties or emergency security problems are directed to Larnaca, Amman, or Greece. Now they can also land at Ramon Airport.

At the same time, an airport for supplementing and supporting Ben Gurion Airport is slated for construction at Ramat David or in Nevatim, and to operate continuously. There is general opposition by residents in the Jezreel Valley to construction of such an airport; they argue that this will destroy agriculture, affect their quality of life, cause devastating air pollution and traffic jams, etc. Given the fact that Ramon Airport is located in southern Israel, will it be given preference over Ramat David, where the idea is supported? This is unclear.

On the one hand, there is a significant distance between Ramon Airport and Nevatim. Given the fact that Israel covers a relatively small area, however, there will undoubtedly be some who will try to attract the supplementary airport to the north in order to provide a solution for residents there, so that there will eventually be two main airports - one in the south and one in the north. Incidentally, the other airport to be constructed is to be private under the build, operate, transfer (BOT) model, in which the franchise holder designs, finances, builds and operates the enterprise for the period of the franchise, after which the airport will pass into state hands.

2. What will happen if the exemption from fees and the subsidies for airlines are terminated?

In order to encourage foreign airlines to come to the new airport, Minister of Transport and Intelligence Yisrael Katz recently announced that the airlines would be exempt from payment of landing fees for three years. To illustrate the point, the fees paid by airlines to authorities in Israel are $24 per takeoff from Terminal 3 at Ben Gurion Airport and $11 per takeoff from Terminal 1, so the discount is important. The main trigger for the airlines currently operating direct flights from Europe to Ovda, however, is the subsidy they get from the Ministry of Tourism - €60 per passenger.

This substantial subsidy is reflected in the number. Last winter, 110,000 tourists landed in Ovda, most of them from Russia, Poland, and Germany. This season, 55 flights a week are expected from various destinations in Europe (and not by low-cost airlines), including London, Amsterdam, Madrid, Zurich, Sofia, Budapest, Vienna, and Prague. The number of these tourists is projected to reach 165,000.

In addition to the grant, airlines operating direct flights to Ovda, including Wizz Air, Ryanair, Transavia, and others, enjoy another bonus: an airline that operates at least 14 weekly flights and increases its activity by at least two flights, compared with the previous season, will receive an additional €6 - 10% more per passenger.

If the next minister of tourism decides to terminate this subsidy policy, many airlines are liable to stop flying directly to Eilat (to Ramon Airport), which will undoubtedly have significant consequences for tourism.

3. How will closing down Sde Dov Airport affect inland flight activity?

Most internal flight activity to Eilat, which is carried out by Arkia (70%) and Israir, is on the Sde Dov Airport-Eilat route. Sde Dov, however, is slated to be closed down this year, with these internal flights moving to Ben Gurion Airport, from which a small number of the flights by these two airlines already take off. As of now, the date for closing down Sde Dov is July 1, 2019, but the airport's closure has already been postponed several times, and the Knesset only recently passed a law authorizing the minister of defense, who currently is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to reconsider the matter in cooperation with the relevant parties.

A survey recently published by economist Adv. Barak Teichman for the Eilat Hotel Association states that closing Sde Dov Airport will increase the cost of internal flights to Eilat, due to the reduction of supply, while cutting the number of passengers, first of all because of the 20-kilometer distance between Ramon Airport and Eilat, and secondly because flights will be moved from central Israel to Ben Gurion Airport, where pre-flight procedures are less passenger-friendly. Furthermore, internal flights at Ben Gurion Airport take off from Terminal 1, to which there is not even a direct railway line.

There is also the question of crowding at Ben Gurion Airport where 140 airlines already operate. It cannot be ruled out that it will be difficult to find slots for the flight timetables of Israir and Arkia.

Another difficulty comes at the other end of the flight. Today, flights land at Eilat Airport, which is a short taxi ride from most of the hotels in the town. Ramon Airport is 20 kilometers away from the city. A taxi ride, which according to the Ministry of Transport should take 20 minutes in either direction, will cost far more (an estimated NIS 85, not counting luggage or a third passenger, and not including a higher rate for Saturday). This cost will be in addition to prices of already expensive flights. Many Israelis are likely to forego a vacation in Eilat, or to prefer traveling there by car (thereby creating traffic loads on roads in the Arava area during peak seasons).

The consolation is that a bus line is scheduled to begin operating every 15 minutes, but this line will not operate on Friday-Saturday. The cost of the ride will be NIS 4.20. A tender is now being held for a shared tax service (sherut), which will constitute a solution seven days a week. The Ministry of Transport says that until April 1, a free service will operate, and that afterwards, Eilat residents will be entitled to free parking at the airport for 36 hours. Parking for non-Eilat residents will cost NIS 4 per hour and NIS 20 a day. Nevertheless, like other places in the world, hotels in Eilat will operate their own shuttle service for their guests' convenience in order to support the internal flights.

Another question is what will happen if a railway connecting the central region to Eilat is built one day and provides an interesting alternative to internal flights. The railway, now in the initial planning stages, is planned to stop at stations all along the Arava road, so that anyone wishing to travel to one of the communities in the area is likely to prefer it to a flight.

4. They will land at Ramon Airport and continue to Egypt or Jordan: Will the new airport serve mainly the neighboring countries?

Quite a few tourists coming to Ovda on direct flights from Europe make no secret of the fact that their visit in Israel is limited to a trip to the border with Jordan or Egypt. The numbers are not negligible. According to figures from the Population and Immigration Authority communicated to "Globes," the number of tourists leaving Israel on the way to the neighboring countries grew significantly in 2018, in comparison with 2017, in direct proportion to the number of direct flights from Europe to Ovda. In 2017, the number of tourists crossing the Taba border into Egypt was 285,000, and grew 16% to 331,000 in 2018. 158,000 tourists passed through the Rabin border crossing with Jordan in 2017, rising 42% to 224,000 in 2018.

Many of these tourists do not stay in Israel at all; they merely use Israel as a landing and takeoff station. The beneficiaries of a large proportion of the investment in Ramon Airport are thus liable to be the neighboring countries, which will benefit from the conditions and subsidies that the foreign airlines get.

5. What happens in an emergency, and whether Eilat will receive the incentive it so badly needs

Today, takeoffs and landings from and at the airport in Eilat take place in the center of the town, so that if an airplane has an accident, the damage to people and the surroundings will be considerable. The fact that Ramon Airport is located at Timna has soothed the security fears of those dealing with the matter over the year. On the other hand, this distance is liable to create problems in an emergency requiring evacuation of casualties via the Arava road and the arrival of rescue forces to the airport, if necessary.

Another factor is that removal of the airport from Eilat is likely to aid the town's development, because the land on which the airport currently operates can house hotels with thousands of rooms, together with entertainment complexes and commercial space that will provide Eilat with a catalyst for the town and the tourist services that it currently offers.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 20, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Ramon Airport Eilat Photo: Eyal Izhar
Ramon Airport Eilat Photo: Eyal Izhar
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