For Those Sleeping at the Airport

Some 750 million people worldwide fly at least once a year, but their power as consumers has not been felt.

Some 750 million people worldwide fly at least once a year, but their power as consumers has not been felt. They suffer bitterly from the declining quality of airline service throughout the world. Exhausting security checks, services and infrastructure that have not kept pace with the rate of increase in airline passengers, lengthening lines, unpredictable takeoff and landing times, impatient ground crews and routine luggage losses are currently part of the flying experience.

All this happens despite the fact that ticket purchases over the Internet have made the process easier.

The worldwide distress of those who fly stems from the gap between the rate of growth in the number of passengers and the lag in infrastructure development. But in Israel, passengers also suffer from exorbitant fares.

Israelis who want to fly to Europe right now must pay $900 per ticket, and they have no option of choosing a lower-priced regular airline, because low-cost airlines are still not allowed to fly here.

The only cheap options are charter flights, and this business is flooded with ad hoc, seasonal, third-rate companies whose only plus is that they do not constitute real competition for El Al, Arkia and Israir.

The thousands of vacationers who have spent nights on the airport floor with their children in recent weeks are victims of Israel's closed-skies policy.

While Europeans can take low-cost flights run by serious regular airlines, Israelis looking for a cheap vacation must generally settle for an "everything included" package with an airline whose name they have never heard before.

For Israeli vacationers who want to fly to Turkey, the choice is between staying at home or making use of inferior tourist services. After El Al stopped flying to Turkey because of the security costs, the market for flights to this destination became even smaller.

Open skies mean that low-cost regular airlines can fly passengers from anywhere to anywhere, and not just to and from their country of origin. This is currently the case in the United States and Europe.

This year, the German company TUI entered the Israeli market, and its entry lowered fares to and from Germany and increased the number of tourists from that country. Wisdom would dictate letting a company like this fly to other destinations as well.

The transportation minister admittedly set up a committee to examine the issue, and the committee did recommend opening the skies "gradually." However, it seems doubtful that this recommendation will survive the pressures from El Al, Arkia and Israir, as well as other airlines, which benefit from a protected market as no other industry does.

There is no reason why Israelis should make do with less than what is available to American and European travelers, nor is there any reason to prevent regular airlines worldwide from bringing tourists here from anyplace.

The consumer battle to improve airline services is global, but in Israel, it has an additional layer: the lack of competition, which causes service to be either lousy or expensive. Regular, low-cost flights are awaiting a decision by the transportation minister. The issue is not that complicated.