Security Bottlenecks Stop Israeli Airlines From Keeping Up With Increased Travel

Carriers cancelling planned routes this summer for want of security arrangements

People queue up at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Ofer Vaknin

Israelis are flying abroad in record numbers and incoming tourism is setting new records, but Israeli airlines can’t meet the demand because there’s a shortage of personnel to provide the high level of security the government requires.

“At a time when they are opening up the skies to foreign airlines, they’re closing them to Israeli carriers. The security infrastructure hasn’t prepared itself for summertime demand, which is going to come at the expense of travelers,” said Nir Dagan, CEO of Arkia.

Dagan warned that with Israeli airlines unable to fly as many routes as they want to in order to meet demand, air fares are likely to go up. “Foreign airlines will raise prices because Israeli companies can’t compete on all routes,” he said.

Israel has earned world renown for the tough security standards it employs at Ben-Gurion International Airport and at the foreign airports served by Israel’s three airlines, including Israir and flagship El Al. But it comes at a high cost, requires highly trained personnel and involves a delicate dance to ensure people are in place at the right airports at the right time.

El Al’s security arm, which serves all three carriers, is required to meet standards set by the Shin Bet security service, which are far more onerous than other airlines have to meet. Security personnel at destination airports, for instance, have to be flown from one airport to another in coordination with Israeli flights bringing in or collecting passengers. It gets government subsidies to ensure the cost isn’t passed on the fliers.

Traffic outpaces manpower

But with air traffic to and from Israel soaring since the Open Skies agreement with the European Union began taking effect in 2013, traffic has grown far faster than security resources available to handle it.

“When Israir seeks permission to open a new route, like Baku in Azerbaijan or Rimini in Italy, we get a flat-out no, which is not how Open Skies is supposed to work,” said Israir CEO Uri Sirkis. “If foreign airlines like Easyjet and Wizz Air were to seek approvals for routes like these to Israel, they would not only get them but they would also get subsidies from the [Israeli] Tourism Ministry.”

Israir said it only learned this month that it wouldn’t be able to fly some 10% of the flights it planned for this summer, even though it had informed El Al’s security arm of its plans at the end of last year.

“El Al security said they can’t keep up with the rapid expansion of Israeli air traffic,” said one executive, who asked not to be named. But he accused El Al of discriminating against Israir and Arkia and said no more than 2% of El Al’s planned flights had to be pulled because there was no security available.

For its part, El Al said that because of the sharp rise in air traffic it couldn’t promise there would be enough security personnel in place for the summer so far in advance.

Two years ago an antitrust court ruled that El Al was a monopoly in airline security, even though the airline insisted it was simply carrying out the government’s instructions and requirements. El Al budgets about 150 million shekels ($41 million) a year on security but says it doesn’t generate profits from the service.

Since then, there has been a long-simmering debate on whether security should be provided by the Shin Bet or the Israel Airports Authority instead of El Al. Transportation Minster Yisrael Katz has proposed an independent government agency to take over the service, but has encountered opposition to the idea and it hasn’t moved forward.

The Shin Bet said in a statement that a panel has just completed its work on reforming airport security and its recommendations will go to the cabinet for a final decision.