The international aviation industry is in a ferment. Next year, several eastern European countries will join the European Union, enabling their airlines to fly to and from anyplace in Europe, which essentially will become a single aviation zone.
A Czech airline, for example, will be able to offer flights from Madrid to Vienna - thereby adding even more competition to the open skies policy already existing in Europe. And prices will obviously drop accordingly.
In North America, the open skies policy has existed in the United States and Canada for 20 years, since the deregulation effected by former U.S. president Ronald Reagan. There, streamlining is occurring all the time. In negotiations between the management of Delta, the third largest American airline, and its pilots' union - which represents some 8,500 pilots - the pilots agreed to a 9 percent pay cut "to remain competitive." United Airlines slashed its pilots' wages by 30 percent, and American Airlines cut pilots' wages by 17 to 23 percent. Could that ever happen at El Al?
El Al lives in another world. For years, the company has specialized in bilateral agreements. If you want to take a regularly scheduled flight to London, for instance, your only choices are El Al or British Airways. Another El Al specialty is "code-sharing agreements," which divvy up the market and the profits and raise prices for passengers. "The open skies policy has been thrown into the garbage, giving way instead to a policy of protecting El Al's regular routes," Antitrust Commissioner Dror Strum says.
In the rest of the world, in contrast, the "low cost" market has been growing. This market has several characteristics: Reservations are made over the Internet, there are no meals on flights (although you can bring your own food), and flights land at cheaper, outlying airports that are connected by train to the cities they serve. But Israel has the monopolistic Airports Authority, so the landing fees charged in Haifa are identical to the expensive fees charged in Tel Aviv.
Therefore, the time has come for Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to add the Airports Authority to the list of monopolies on which he is waging war - even though there are many Likud activists working there.
The Haifa Airport should be detached from the authority and privatized. The entrepreneur who acquires the airport will extend the runway to make it suitable for large jets. And because it will be more efficient without the inflated salaries and political appointments that characterize the Airports Authority - where the average salary of its 175(!) senior officials is NIS 34,000 a month - the new owner will be able to reduce landing fees. That will enable Haifa Airport to compete with Ben-Gurion Airport.
And if, in addition, Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman have the sense to enable "low-cost" companies to fly to Israel (and land not only at Haifa, but also at Nevatim in the Negev, which will also be connected by train to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem), it will be possible to increase significantly the number of flights to Israel by pilgrims and other tourists for whom price determines where they will take their vacations.
These steps would be far more effective than all the tourism industry's public relations and marketing campaigns put together.
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