Schedule shrinks at Eilat's 'white elephant' airport

Eilat airport opening ceremony Photo: Sasson Tiram

Designed for 4.5 million passengers a year, in the summer Ramon airport serves a few thousand passengers a month.

In early March, shortly after Ramon Airport in Eilat was opened, low-cost airline Ryanair made the first international flight there. Construction of the international airport cost NIS 1.7 billion and took 10 years. It was awarded international prizes for design, but a glance at its flight schedule shows limited operations and not much traffic in the international department: just a few internal flights to Eilat by Arkia Airlines and Israir - a rather sad flight schedule.

Ryanair's flights lasted only two months, and will be renewed only in October. This was known in advance, but nevertheless, Ryanair, like Wizz Air and even Lufthansa, which operated direct flights to Ramon Airport, do so only from late October until May. What happens the rest of the year? At this stage, this stunning airport serves a few thousand passengers a month traveling to and from Eilat. Was it necessary to build an airport in the desert at such enormous cost for this purpose? Ramon Airport is designed to serve 4.5 million passengers at peak activity. With the closing down of Sde Dov Airport in Tel Aviv last Monday, however, this volume of passenger traffic seems like a very distant dream.

Better to travel by car than airplane from Ben Gurion Airport to Eilat

Until the old airports in Eilat and Sde Dov were closed down, passenger traffic to Eilat was 1.5 million passengers a year. Two very recent events will reduce the number of passengers by only 15% according to an optimistic scenario and by 30% according to a realistic scenario. Arkia, which accounts for 70% of internal flights, has already announced that it will cut its flight schedule to Eilat and lay off 250 of its 650 employees. Israir CEO Uri Sirkis predicted that the number of passengers would drop by 15%.

Passenger traffic already shrank as soon as the airport was moved from Eilat to Ramon Airport, 20 kilometers away from the city. The reason is simple cost-benefit consideration. Flights to Eilat are an expensive business; the cost is out of proportion for a 30-minute flight. When the cost of a taxi to and from Eilat (NIS 100 each way) and the time it takes to reach the destination are added to the flight ticket cost (NIS 370 each way), it is no wonder that many people passed up the pleasure even before Sde Dov was closed.

To this has now been added the shifting of internal flights to Ben Gurion Airport, where the preflight process takes more time. Ben Gurion Airport is a big place, unlike compact Sde Dov, and requires passengers to appear at least 90 minutes before an internal flight. Passengers traveling to the airport by car must find parking, while those getting there by railway must take a shuttle bus in order to get from Terminal 3 to Terminal 1, from where internal flights take off. What we wind up with is a four and a half-hour trip for a 30-minute flight, which is likely to make passengers decide to either spend their vacation in Cyprus or drive their car to Eilat on Road 90. If the car is a leasing car from the vacationer's employer, all the better.

The Dan Hotel chain, which has already realized that the closure of Sde Dov will affect its vacationers, today offered people spending their vacation at its hotels in Eilat a free trip to and from Tel Aviv. The chain will operate one daily bus for 40 passengers. This means that Ramon Airport, which will have to settle for internal flights only until October, will serve even fewer passengers than it does now, all of them flying on Arkia or Israir.

Instead of fees, the state subsidizes airlines

An airport can be a profitable resource. In addition to being necessary national infrastructure, it can be a business with booming demand and passenger traffic. Among other things, revenue comes from fees paid by airlines and prosperous businesses operating on the airport premises. Ramon Airport currently serves only two airlines, Arkia and Israir, which do not pay inland aviation fees. Starting in October, it will also serve foreign airlines, which like using the airport because they are also exempt from fees. According to the Ministry of Tourism's winter rule in recent years, foreign airlines flying directly to Eilat, formerly to Ovda Airport and now to Ramon Airport, receive a subsidy of €60 per passenger, even if the passenger lands at Ramon Airport and flies from there to Jordan or Egypt without staying in Eilat. Furthermore, each airliner receives a $3,000 subsidy from the Israel Airports Authority in the framework of the fees exemption.

Current Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin will soon finish his term. If his replacement decides not to invest these millions of shekels in encouraging winter tourism to Eilat, it will come as a blow to not only Eilat, but also Ramon Airport. An Arkia pilot with 13 years of experience told "Globes," "Moving flights to Ramon Airport caused a drop in the number of people flying to Eilat. We felt it immediately. The closure of Sde Dov Airport will double the damage. I predict a 50% drop in passenger traffic - mainly professionals flying regularly."

This pilot goes daily to Ramon Airport. "The parking lots there are empty. Workers at the restaurants and duty-free shops sit around bored. Every time I pass by the Steimatzky book shop, it's empty. Even while they were holding the inaugural ceremonies, it was obvious that that they were opening a white elephant. Now that Sde Dov has been closed down, Ramon Airport will become a rock in the desert. As a pilot who has over 5,000 flight hours on the route, it's just sad," he says.

Will foreign airlines be allowed to conduct internal flights?

How can the airport be made profitable? By encouraging activity. In the future, the Airports Authority plans to generate international activity from Ramon Airport, including to destinations in Africa and the Far East. On top of the winter campaign encouraging foreign airlines to fly to Eilat, the Airports Authority is also optimistic about the 2020-2021 season for flights to Europe, which will serve not only those coming to Eilat, but also Israeli passengers, who can take off from Ramon Airport at lower prices. El Al is also apparently considering flights from Ramon Airport to Europe. Most of the foreign airlines, which prefer to channel their activity to Ben Gurion Airport because of its location, will require big bait to divert their traffic to Ramon Airport. Competition in internal flights can also be encouraged. Ryanair, Wizz Air, and easyJet have all made inquiries to the Israeli authorities about getting a permit to operate internal flights to Eilat from Ben Gurion Airport. Such a measure, which will cause tumult in the internal flights sector, requires special authorization from the minister of transport. This will also take time when a transition government is in office.

We were reminded of the advantages of another international airport this week. When Ramon Airport was launched, then-Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz said that it would be used as an alternative to Ben Gurion Airport in an emergency. Such a case almost happened this week, when a Level 3 emergency was declared at Ben Gurion Airport. A malfunction in a wheel of an Electra Airways airplane put 100 Magen David Adom ambulances on alert. The airport was closed with a very high alert in preparation for a worst-case scenario. In such a situation, other airplanes have to fly in holding patterns above the sea or land at alternative airports. Had it been necessary, planes would have been sent to Ramon Airport, instead of to Cyprus, as has been done up until now.

The Airports Authority said in response, "In the past 30 years, Eilat has been a destination for international tourism only during the winter, not during the summer. Israelis spend vacations in Eilat during the summer, and European tourists travel there during the winter. If the airlines lower their ticket prices and the state allows low-cost airlines to operate internal flights, competition will increase and the consumer price will fall, as happened at Ben Gurion Airport. Ramon Airport is an anchor for development of Eilat and a strategic airport for Israel."

Steimatzky said, "Steimatzky has two bookstores at Ramon Airport, and these branches are meeting expectations."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 4, 2019

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

Eilat airport opening ceremony Photo: Sasson Tiram
Eilat airport opening ceremony Photo: Sasson Tiram
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