Airport at Sea, or Castle in the Air?

Israel, it turns out, is in need of a new international airport, and one group of visionaries thinks it should be built in part on a marine platform off the coast of Rishon Letzion. Get ready for 'Natbag 2020.'

In a few days, businessman Elie Schalit, a resident of Caesarea, will board a plane for Miami. There he is expected to meet with old acquaintances - a group of wealthy and tanned Jews - and present to them in detail the extraordinary initiative in which he has been involved in recent months.

Schalit, 92, is chairman and founder of the Colbert Group, which builds giant cruise ships. It was he who built the first fleet of 24 ships for Ted Arison's Carnival Cruise Lines, and he also serves as a shipbroker with dealings that encircle the world. Schalit is but one of the figures who recently joined an initiative aimed at building an international airport on an artificial island off the coast of Rishon Letzion.

Schalit's grandfather Eliezer, after whom he is named, was one of the founders of Rishon Letzion in the late 19th century, and the grandson has donated his house to the municipal museum. During the period of the War of Independence, Elie Schalit commanded the unit that was responsible for aerial transport to Israel and to this day he is considered an asset to the air force and an important fundraiser for it.

Schalit does not like to make pronouncements or to get ahead of himself, but he expresses cautious optimism about the airport project. "I've looked into the matter in a number of places," he says. "I don't recommend things that are nonsense. What convinced me is the fact that this is a very serious solution, based on modern technological developments. To date I have spoken with two organizations in the United States that are examining the possibility of coming in and funding the development of the project - one in Miami and the other in San Francisco. These are wealthy Jews whose motives are economic-Zionist."

According to Schalit, one of the two companies interested in the project is the American fishing giant Starkist, whose canned tuna can be found in nearly every home in Israel and some of whose fishing ships Schalit built.

He is going to Miami with a number of copies of the plan, which he will present to his curious acquaintances at a kind of conference he is organizing. The plan envisions construction of an artificial island on top of poles, 15 meters above sea level. Situated some two kilometers out in the Mediterranean, the platform would offer a landing surface of more than 1,000 dunams (250 acres). The terminals and cargo docks would be built onshore, within the municipal boundaries of Rishon Letzion, near the intersection of highways 4, 431 and 20 (Netivei Ayalon). Passengers would be shuttled to and from the runways by a fast train or by buses traveling along a long pier.

This would be, of course, a huge production, an economic adventure whose cost various sources estimate at reaching about NIS 50 billion, and whose planning and construction time could exceed a decade.

Taking into account the insufferable noise pollution, the crowded air traffic over Israel, the rapid advance toward the limit of the passenger capacity at Ben-Gurion International Airport and the defense establishment's strong objection to any of the land-based alternatives for the establishment of a additional international airport, more and more eyes are looking westward in the direction of the Mediterranean Sea.

Nevertheless, the gap between the vision and its realization of it is large, and if two decades from now the State of Israel does indeed find itself with an international airport on a kind of artificial island opposite the shores of Gush Dan, it will be a surprising development by anyone's reckoning. Surprising, but not impossible, at least not for a large group of supporters of the idea.

Former Tel Aviv municipal engineer Israel Goodovitch, the driving force behind the idea, is not concerned by the inevitable doubts. He makes use of his connections and acquaintances, and rushes through every door, loaded down with data and models of the plan that will he claims, make it possible to shut down Ben-Gurion International Airport altogether and transform its site into lands worth their weight in gold for residential construction in the center of the country.

Less than a year ago, the plan was launched under the name "Natbag 2020: The Offshore Option" ("Natbag" is the Hebrew acronym for Ben-Gurion airport) in an Internet campaign mounted by an organization of architects and engineers headed by Goodovitch. The independent campaign stirred some local interest but did not make it onto the public agenda or win any attention from government ministries.

A national need

Building an international airport to supplement or replace Ben-Gurion is a recognized national need, which has provided fuel for more than one exploratory committee over the years. In February, Haaretz published a report surveying the various alternatives for establishing an additional airport. The bleak picture that arose from it showed mainly government impotence and hesitancy in making decisions - in this case, in a process that has dragged on for 15 years now.

The increase in the extent of the activity at Ben-Gurion (which now has traffic of about 13 million passengers a year, as compared to 6.8 million in 2002) is already breathing down the necks of the decision makers, who in the meantime have managed to come up with three alternatives: an airport at Nevatim in the south, at Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley or on an island in the Mediterranean.

In June another committee of experts was formed for a feasibility study on building artificial islands opposite Israel's shore for infrastructure installations, this time under the auspices of the Ministry of Science and Technology. The committee, comprised of representatives from government ministries and headed by the ministry's director general Menachem Greenblum, is supposed to examine the feasibility of building various infrastructure facilities, among them power stations, a seawater desalinization plant, wind energy farms and also an airport. According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, the overall cost of building an island with an area of 2,000 square meters is estimated at $1.5 billion. "Building artificial islands can solve the problem of the shortage of lands for building large infrastructure installations. Artificial islands offer a solution to the establishment of major infrastructure facilities that otherwise would be located on the shore and take away precious space and harm the environment. The experience that has been acquired in other countries is being examined, along with new and original technologies," said Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz upon the appointment of the committee.

The promoters of the offshore airport option do not intend to sit around and wait for the committee's conclusions. They are planning to transform the idea of the airport in the sea from a curiosity into an initiative that can no longer be ignored.

On September 5, an extraordinary conference will be held in an equally extraordinary place, another kind of island: the Cafe Joe branch at the Park and Ride area of the fast lane to Tel Aviv. At the conference, in the heart of the largest traffic artery in Gush Dan, tens of officials, public figures and private individuals will meet around a round table and plan their next steps. They are planning to enlist public opinion and establish an independent administration for planning the initiative.

"The aim of the conference is to shut down Ben-Gurion forever, not in jest, not in a stuttering way, and not by building a supplementary airport for it," explains Goodovitch. "Ben-Gurion has finished its job. It is standing in the middle of the country, surrounded by more than 2 million people who suffer from its existence. It has to be shut down and it is necessary to repurpose its lands, the value of which is much more than the cost of funding the alternative airport, for residential construction - and they can be the source of the funding for the new airport.

"We will set up a project administration that will be a replacement for what the government should have done. This is an administration that will plan the project and bring it to a stage at which ultimately the government will be able to decide on a model for implementing it - be that a model of self-financing or a BOT (build-operate-transfer) model by means of private investors. A group of interested Jewish tycoons in the United States has already organized," says Goodovitch.

Goodovitch, who comes to the project from the field of architectural planning, notably during his stint as the Tel Aviv municipal engineer, has learned a thing or two since his initiative got underway: A national project of this magnitude, even if its planning and implementation are feasible, cannot be based solely around a group of engineers and architects. A wider base is needed, one that cannot be ignored. It has to include public figures and influential individuals, especially in the local authorities.

According to him, the project is attracting a lot of interest on the part of the councils and local authorities in the areas surrounding Ben-Gurion International, including cities like Or Yehuda, Azor, Rosh Ha'ayin, Holon, Bat Yam and Yehud, as well as representatives of the smaller and agricultural communities in the area like Mazor, Bnei Atarot, Gannot, Magshimim, Kfar Chabad and other locales where the inhabitants can no longer stand the noise of Israel's international airport.

The promoters' determination has succeeded in interesting even the Israeli Airports Authority workers' committee - and as everyone knows, not even a fly takes off from the airport without its authorization. "We are tremendously interested in having them as partners to the path and we take off our hat to them for having responded to the challenge."

A secure, acoustic and ecological solution

Brig. Gen. (res. ) Shaike Brosh, formerly commander of the naval special ops unit Shayetet 13 and head of naval intelligence, joined the hardcore nucleus of promoters of the idea a few months ago and is now an active partner and one of the more enthusiastic members of it. For years Brosh has been saying that the state has to relocate some of its strategic assets to the sea and to start to make use of its western border. "The sea can constitute a solution to quite a number of the state's problems from desalinization of water as a solution to the shortage of fresh water, through energy resources, to producing protein and raising fish artificially. For example, did you know that Mexico has an installation of 20,000 square meters where they are raising fish? As head of naval intelligence I was also responsible for the area of hydrography and I developed a broad picture of how it is possible to move assets to the sea. This is a place that on the one hand is sufficiently close and accessible and on the other is far enough away from the perspective of security, environmental damage and acoustic hazards."

The initial idea for building an airport in the sea, atop an artificial island that depends on drying out parts of the Mediterranean Sea, was already known to Brosh and he believes it is not feasible. However, when he heard about the idea of building an airport over a large area above sea level, he was captivated immediately. "This was for me like a bolt from the blue. I realized that in every aspect - security, acoustic and ecological - this offers a solution. I realized that this is the solution."

Brosh emerged optimistic from a meeting with people from the National Security Council about two months ago. "The way I read the situation, they will not oppose the building of an airport at sea in the defense establishment. There will be a few problems that will require solutions but they are negligible, compared to the problems entailed in all the other alternatives. The National Security people didn't manage to shoot the idea down. Of course they are leery of expressing their opinion in public, but all in all there was no objection, so that the main obstacle is the budget."

The Prime Minister's Office provided this comment: "About two months ago the government approved the establishment of an inter-ministerial steering committee to examine the feasibility of the technology for building artificial islands in Israel for infrastructure needs. Among the things the committee will examine: the building of an airport, water desalinization plants, power stations and more. The steering committee will submit recommendations to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu within a year. It will be headed by the director general of the Science and Technology Ministry and will include representatives of the Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Energy and Water, the Finance Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Transportation Ministry and the defense establishment."

In the opinion of the defense establishment, the choice of either of the two land alternatives would not only require a costly and extensive logistical operation but would also require a defensive envelope to protect against new threats and would seriously interfere with air force maneuvers. In its rejection of the land-based alternatives, the defense establishment is becoming, even if by default, a potential partner for advancing the initiative.

Goodovitch and Brosh also met with people from the Herzliya-based Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, where many former pilots and senior air force people are researchers. At the Fisher Institute they are not dismissing the idea in principle but they are cautious about taking a stance.

"In recent months, we began to research the topic in depth. Many papers and studies have been written on the subject of artificial islands in Israel since the 1960s," relates Col. (res. ) Itai Alon, head of the institute's center for flight safety and security research.

"Goodovitch's group has indeed met with us, as have other groups. In general, we think that if it is possible to build an airport on an artificial island, it will provide a solution to many aviation problems, and we think it is necessary to examine this solution seriously. The thing is, we don't really know to what extent it is practical.

"The papers that have been written reveal a variety of opinions on the subject, and my sense is that this varies depending on who has done the commissioning. Some say it is not good to establish islands by the drying out method, others say it is not good to build an island on posts, there are papers that say building such islands is altogether problematic, and there are others that say everything is possible. We intend to wait for the progress of the work of the committee that is examining this and we will proceed in parallel." In contrast to the Fisher Institute people, Brosh has no doubt that building the airport at sea is a fantasy that can be realized, especially in light of progress that's been made in the field of marine engineering and in the construction of installations at sea. "This is an existing and accessible technology. When Herzl told his friends about his vision it also sounded like a fantasy. Here we are talking about something less complicated than establishing a state, but in order for something to happen we have to start to dream."

After a number of preliminary explorations carried out along the Mediterranean coast off central Israel and the Sharon region, the location that emerged as the most suitable for the project is located 1.5-2 kms. off of Rishon Letzion. Its central location, as well as the empty areas available on land for a terminal gave it an advantage. However, the most significant factor was the excellent accessibility to transportation in the form of the triangle of highways that reaches almost to the shore of the city.

In February, Goodovitch and his people held a meeting with Rishon Letzion Mayor Dov Zur. Zur is not currently among the supporters of the plan, but former mayor Meir Nitzan did try to promote a similar idea in the 1990s.

"I started to get this idea rolling back in 1992," says Nitzan, "and during 1998-2000, I did a serious research study of the matter. It took me a long time and a lot of checking , including of directions of takeoff and landing. At first I was thinking about an airport on land, but that meant damage to military installations. An airport in the sea is possible and nowadays there are the techniques for doing it."

According to Nitzan, the fact that the main highways established in Rishon during his term in office meet in a junction was also a result of the thinking that one day the roads would serve as access routes to the airport. "Today there is an open space of 700 dunams suitable for a terminal. Moreover, during my term in office, I approved at the Rishon Letzion municipality NIS 650 million surplus and another NIS 24 million in the [city's] economic corporation, with the intention that the money serve for financing the terminal and that the municipality would be a partner in holding it." Nitzan sees the current mayor's lack of enthusiasm as politically based. "There are elections coming up in 14 months and at city hall, they are only looking at what contributes to the elections. But this is the best alternative. It's impossible to keep the airport in Lod, which was decided by the British, and to make it into a 21st-century airport when millions of people around it can't sleep at night."

It should be noted that the city of Rishon Letzion has not said it is unwilling to advance the project, at least not officially. According to the municipality: "This is a proposal that is only in an initial conceptual stage, and the range of its possible effects has not been examined yet. We are also examining the matter vis-a-vis the Ministry of Science and Technology, which the government has delegated to undertake a feasibility study for the establishment of facilities in the sea along Israel's shores."

One of the main obstacles to the marine airport idea is funding. The cost of the project, according to the estimates presented by its promoters, could reach about NIS 50 billion. The planning alone will cost several hundreds of millions of shekels, and construction can be expected to take at least a decade. The state already has multi-year plans for infrastructure development amounting to NIS 100 billion. Going into a project like this one would be possible with government funding by means of an earmarked budget spread over many years, or alternatively on the BOT model - construction by the private sector with suitable guarantees on the part of the state.

According to Brosh, "There are now organizations that are looking for investments in the very long term of 30 to 50 years, and this could be one of them. In fact, the less the government is involved, the greater the interest. When investors see the government is involved, they start feeling pressured. It's clear that at a certain stage the government has to hitch itself to the project but not in a way that will destroy it."

Nonethless, the marine option is considered the least popular of the various alternatives. Beyond the high cost, there isn't any real experience in such construction in Israel, or anywhere else. A number of airports built on artificial islands do exist, but these are islands or peninsulas built by drying out parts of the sea and in quiet bays.

What Goodovitch and his colleagues are counting on, however, is Israel's proven planning and technological ability, which they say has already been applied in the form of the coal piers in Hadera (built in the 1980s ) and in Ashkelon (from a decade ago ). Both piers reach out some 2 kms into the sea.

But can the building of coal piers and drilling rafts in Israel constitute a guarantee of the ability to build an airport in a similar way? After all, the landing area would have to be able to bear tremendous loads and withstand over and over the landing of 400-ton Boeing wide-body jets full of passengers.

The closest model abroad, which supporters of the plan are enlisting in their pitch, is Tokyo's Haneda International Airport, close to the city of Ota. The airport, which opened in 2010, is the largest in Japan. The year it opened, 64 million passengers passed through it, which made it the second-busiest airport in Asia and the fifth-busiest in the world. On the surface, this sounds promising but a closer examination shows that there are many differences. At Haneda Airport they wanted to allow for a special flight path that would not pass over the city, and that would be located perpendicular to the airfield, so that it would be possible to have takeoffs and landings at night.

The project carried out by the Kajima Corporation and Nippon Steel gave rise to a runway 2,400 meters long, of which only 800 meters are raised above the sea on poles. Architect Uri Dekel, a former pilot and an airport planner, thinks that Japanese help is a necessary condition for the success of the project. "Of course it is possible. We are still rolling with the idea. We do not have a budget for planning. The moment we do have such a budget, we will go into it in depth. We are in contact with the Japanese planner who did a similar thing and we will use his experience."

A rendering of the proposed airport off the coast of Rishon Letzion.
Goodovitch Architects
Israel Goodovitch
Daniel Tchetchik
Shaike Brosh
Tomer Appelbaum
Meir Nitzan
Nir Keidar