Tourists flying to Eilat are about to experience a new kind of arrival. Instead of landing at a former air force base (as international travelers do) or at a tiny facility in the center of town (as Israelis have), they will enjoy brand-new state-of-the art facilities. Tinted glass windows will provide panoramic views of the surrounding desert. Domestic passengers will be whisked through self-service check-in and security and have their bags inspected without having to be present.
Along the airport’s side facing Jordan, a 35-meter fence will protect aircraft from missile attacks. Unlike the old facilities, which had to close during inclement weather – the new airport will have the technology to handle flights when visibility is poor and during sandstorms or rain, said Uri Bar Oz, the Israel Airports Authority deputy director for operations, during a tour for the press.
The new Ilan and Asaf Ramon Airport – named after the Israeli astronaut who died in the 2002 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and his son, an Air Force pilot who died in a training crash – will be opened this week. But most fliers will have to wait to use it.
The first domestic flights will only begin landing the first week of February and on a limited basis of once a week – before moving to a regular schedule as of March 18. International flights will only start at the end of March. That is practically the end of the winter season, so that tourists from overseas will only begin using the new airport next winter.
Today, nearly all international air traffic in and out of Israel is through Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv. But the southern resort town of Eilat is too far away to be served easily by Ben-Gurion. Instead, domestic flights land at a small airport in the middle of the city while international flights use Uvda Airport, a former air force base that can handle bigger aircraft – but is relatively far from the city.
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Ramon Airport is on an entirely different scale. It covers 5,000 dunams (1,250 acres) and boasts a 45,000 square-meter terminal. Its runway is 3,600 meters long – enough to handle even jumbo jets. Up to 60 wide- and narrow-body jets can park at the airport at the same time.
That is above and beyond Eilat’s present needs, even with the surge of international tourism in the last few years. But after Operation Protective Edge – the 2014 war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip that briefly caused some airlines to suspend service to Ben-Gurion – planners were instructed to design a larger facility. Ramon can now serve as an alternative international airport to Ben-Gurion.
The first wholly new civilian airport built in Israel since the founding of the state in 1948, the deadline to open Ramon was originally planned for April 2017 and then pushed back to early 2018. But building a sophisticated project far from any existing infrastructure in the middle of Arava Desert proved to unusually challenging, said Amir Mann, its architect.
“In almost every area we encountered problems. Because of the location, it was hard to recruit workers and managerial personnel. It’s very hot there, which makes it difficult to work. At 40 degrees centigrade (104 Fahrenheit), special preparations were needed for concrete work. Laying dozens of dunams of concrete is much harder than in the center of the country,” Mann explained.
The longer runways, the anti-missile fence and the extra parking areas for jets added to the construction time, too, he said.
Still, the new airport was built within its budget of just 1.8 billion shekels ($490 million at current exchange rates), a figure that Mann said was a bargain price.
“When we began bidding contracts, the timing was good and bids were low,” he said. “Anyway, we build in Israel more cheaply than they build elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere, a not-so-large addition to the terminal would be built at the same cost we built an entire airport.”
Among the ways planners saved costs was by combining domestic and international departures in the same waiting and shopping facilities.
For international tourists, Ramon is an unmixed blessing: Not only is the new facility bigger and better equipped, the travel time to Eilat will go down from an hour to 20 minutes, assuming there is no traffic.
For domestic arrivals, who have been used to being deposited in the middle of the city when they arrive, getting to their hotels will take longer and cost more. Some industry sources said the inconvenience could reduce domestic traffic to the new airport by 10%.
That would be a major loss for a facility that is built mainly for domestic fliers – 1.5 million passengers versus 350,000 international visitors. Worse, still, when Sde Dov airport, the domestic airfield near Tel Aviv from which many internal flights leave for Eilat, is closed, domestic air traffic to Ramon could fall 25%, said industry sources.
Indeed, some observers warn that the Ramon Airport could end up as a white elephant. Not only could domestic travel to Eilat fall, but so could overseas tourism as well. As it is, international tourism to Eilat exists only from September to April, which means a big part of the year the facility will be underutilized.
Travel to Eilat has soared in recent years after Tourism Minister Yariv Levin introduced a program to subsidize airlines bringing overseas tourists. Levin was able to get a budget for the subsidies because of his close political ties to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the next minister may not be able, or want, to obtain the funds to continue the program.