Following a U.S. Department of Transportation complaint last week, the Israeli Transportation Ministry is now working on a plan to allow the two U.S. airlines that normally serve Tel Aviv, United Airlines and Delta, to resume limited passenger service routes to and from the United States despite the official closure of Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Since late January, when the airport shut down to stem the arrival of passengers infected with new variants of the coronavirus, El Al Israel Airlines has been the only carrier that Israeli authorities have permitted to operate so-called rescue flights for Israelis stranded in the United States and Israelis flying to the U.S. for urgent reasons. Passengers flying in or out of Israel during the airport closure require special permission from an exceptions committee.
American authorities claimed that the exclusion of U.S. carriers was a violation of aviation agreements between Israel and the United States.
The airport shutdown, which began on January 26, is currently in effect until February 21. The Transportation Ministry has scheduled a meeting for Sunday to discuss the possibility of extending it, and if that happens, the slots for the rescue flights will most likely be allocated equally among El Al and the two U.S carriers.
The U.S. airlines have continued to fly cargo flights to and from Israel, but despite numerous requests, they were barred from operating passenger flights.
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Last week, El Al operated three round-trip flights between Tel Aviv and New York. Tickets on the flights cost $600 one-way, including taxes and one checked bag. They sold out within 24 hours.
The airline will be operating several additional flights this week at the same price. For the time being, the last of these flights is scheduled to depart New York on February 20. El Al is also operating rescue flights from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for Israelis. The Israeli carrier Israir is operating similar flights from Frankfurt, Germany.
Sources in the aviation industry expect that once Israel permits U.S. carriers to operate flights to and from Tel Aviv, European airlines will seek a slice of the business on the rescue flights from Frankfurt. Israeli Transportation Ministry officials acknowledge the potential problem, but expressed the hope that the Europeans wouldn’t be as insistent. If such a demand is forthcoming, consideration will be given to shifting the European flights from Frankfurt to a non-European Union airport where Israel has no obligation to treat local airlines equally.
The controversy with the U.S. Transportation Department could have been avoided if Israeli authorities had anticipated the problem with giving El Al exclusive rights during the shutdown. It was only after American authorities threatened not to allow El Al flights to land and depart from American airports during the current period that the Transportation Ministry realized that it had to deal with the issue immediately.