El Al Gets Approval for Eilat Flights

El Al received final approval yesterday for regularly scheduled flights from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Eilat for the first time, in competition with Arkia and Israir.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz yesterday decided to accept the recommendations of the Israel Civil Aviation Authority and allow the flights.

Katz gave approval for six months of flights, starting from the day the airline inaugurates the route. Katz has been considering the issue since late last year, and Israir and Arkia petitioned the High Court of Justice for a temporary order to prevent Katz from approving the flights, but the justices denied the request in early January. The High Court said Katz had yet to decide, but also said that once the minister reaches a decision, El Al would have to wait at least 30 days to begin flights to allow Arkia and Israir to once again petition the court for a restraining order.

Katz's decision allows El Al one to three flights a day in each direction between Ben-Gurion and Eilat, five days a week. Each flight must offer a minimum of 100 seats, but no more than 430 passengers. In addition, El Al must separate its frequent international flyer program from its internal Israeli flights.

Israir also got a break from Katz. The airline will now be allowed to set its own schedules to Eilat instead of the previous ministry-dictated ones.

Katz said his decision could lower air fares to Eilat and meet the potential demand on the route. It could also increase Eilat's exposure as a tourist destination, he said.

There are now 20 daily flights to Eilat, which carry about 1 million passengers per year.

El Al said it is planning to start flights in the spring.

Arkia's lawyer, Neri Yarkoni, said Katz made the decision six months ago, and its publication now was "part of his behavior that raises many questions." He said he "would not be surprised if the High Court is called on to discuss the issue in depth."