After banner year at Ben-Gurion airport, local airline executives deliver mixed travel forecast for 2013
Everyone agrees that economic and geopolitical stability are key.
Despite the woes of the world's airlines, 2012 was actually a good year for international aviation to and from Israel. About 12.4 million passengers transited through Ben-Gurion International Airport over the course of the year, the Israel Airports Authority said, 1.5% more than in 2011.
"I am already willing to certify now that the situation for the aviation sector in Israel in 2013 will be good, as it was in 2012," said Avi Friedman, United Airlines' Israel Managing Director and chairman of the Board of Airline Representatives in Israel. "There's no doubt that Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza adversely affected incoming tourism and caused cancelation by groups and individual tourists up to March 2013," Friedman said, referring to Israel's eight-day offensive in November, during which much of southern and central Israel was hit by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. "But up to November, it was a good year for aviation in Israel."
The most important factor for the country's aviation industry, Friedman noted, is the geopolitical situation. "If relative quiet prevails, I expect we will return to the tourist numbers we had in 2012, and traffic could even increase by 5%."
He sees passenger numbers from Europe as the major issue this year.
"In countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and even France, the situation is not good. There will definitely be a drop in numbers from there," Friedman said, adding, "On the other hand, I expect an increase in passenger traffic from Ukraine and Russia, due to the elimination of the visa requirement in coming to Israel."
When it comes to travel by Israelis going overseas, Friedman is optimistic. He does not see Israelis returning to Turkey, due to the strained relations between Jerusalem and Ankara, but does expect large numbers of Israelis to vacation in Spain, Bulgaria and Greece this year.
He also projects significant traffic to the United States, because of the weakness of the dollar against the shekel.
Sources at El Al Israel Airlines said it foresees a growth of business from both Israelis and foreign visitors if the security situation remains quiet. They also expressed the hope that the carrier's business would be boosted if the world economy improves this year.
Israir CEO Uri Sirkis said that while his airline's passenger traffic through Ben-Gurion grew 10% last year its projections for 2013 are less rosy.
And Gadi Tepper, CEO of Arkia Israel Airlines, predicted that economic uncertainty would lead many Israelis to take shorter vacations, closer to home. He cited the Greek islands as an increasingly attractive destination for Israelis.
Air Canada's Israel director, Ruth Ben-Tzur, sounded a pessimistic note regarding the international aviation outlook here this year. She said incoming traffic will continue to feel the effects of the fighting in November throughout the first quarter. Ben-Tzur said she has seen a 10% to 15% drop in demand for organized tours from abroad for January and February.
"Since Pillar of Defense the aviation sector feels different," said Yael Katan, who heads the operations here of British Airways as well as Iberia, which merged with the U.K. carrier.
The CEO of Swiss International Air Lines in Israel, Avner Gordon, predicted that 2013 would be a "challenging" year for the local aviation industry. He expects a small decline in demand, and called 2012 a "very successful" year.
The CEO of Swissport Cargo Services Israel, Sigal Mannheim-Katzovich, is less than sanguine about the volume of cargo traffic anticipated at Ben-Gurion airport this year, noting a decline in both inbound and outbound cargo shipments.
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