Low-cost Carriers Dominate Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport Flights

Israelis are going abroad in record numbers while tourist arrivals are on their way to another all-time high

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FILE Photo: Passengers check in at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport, 2018.
FILE Photo: Passengers check in at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport, 2018. Credit: Eyal Toueg

Israelis are showing no sign of recovering from the travel big that’s infected them since the 2013 Open Skies reforms with the European Union led to lower air fares and a wider selection of destinations.

The Civil Aviation Authority predicts that 5.5 million people, both Israelis going abroad and foreign tourists coming to Israel, will pass through Ben-Gurion International Airport during the peak summer season of July-August, a 6.6% increase from the year before. In July alone, traffic is due to jump 11%.

Incoming tourism is at a record level after rebounding from a slump in 2014 caused by the Gaza war that summer. In the first five months of this year, 2.26 million tourists entered Israel, an 9.5% increase over the same period in 2018. Outgoing travel by Israelis was up 7.3% to 3.8 million. The previous four years has seen double-digit growth.

Rising incomes and record low unemployment have contributed to the Israeli travel boom, but it also reflects a new attitude that sees a holiday in Paris or on a Greek island as a something you can treat yourself to a few times a year.

“I live with a minus in my bank account … And it’s all so I can travel overseas,” said Liat from Jerusalem, who’s planning a trip to Europe this summer.

“I travel at least four times a year. I realize you can look at me and tell me I’m stupid for not taking care of my overdraft, but it will always be there and I want to see the world. There are people who want another car or TV set, but I don’t want to amass property – I want to collect experiences,” she said.

Open Skies did away with many of the rules that had limited the number of airlines that flew between Israel and EU countries, opening the way for a plethora of low-cost carriers. In a few years it has changed travel habits enormously.

A 16-year-old Israeli teenager who spoke to TheMarker on condition she would not be named said that when her parents were her age, their families had taken their summer vacations in the southern resort town of Eilat. Her parents had never been abroad until after their army service.

“My passport is filled with [visa] stamps,” she said. “Today everything is different. All the kids go abroad during the summer, not just me. And not just during the summer – all throughout the year, even when there’s no vacation from school.”

Although regularly scheduled flights still dominate the flight schedule at Ben-Gurion, with an estimated 1,600 weekly flights through the airport this summer, the big growth has been with low-cost carriers.

This summer, low-cost airlines are increasing the number of weekly flights by 17% from the same time in 2018 to 2017, CAA figures show.

At the top of the list in the Hungarian airline Wizz Air, with is boosting the number of weekly flights to 65 from 62 the year before to destinations like Vienna, London and Warsaw. No. 2 is U.K.-based EasyJet, which is expanding weekly flights by 10 to 62.

Ireland’s Ryanair, which only began flying to Israel two years ago, is expanding its schedule of weekly flights to 40, up from 29 in 2018, with eight different destinations.

Airlines flying long-distance routes, such as to New York, India and China, are seeing even a sharper 28% increase in weekly flights this summer. That includes three new weekly flights from Chilean carrier LATAM and two new ones from Sichuan Airlines to China. Delta is boosting the number of weekly flights to New York to 12.

Still, growth by regular airlines trails the low-cost segment: After a 14% increase in weekly flights in 2017 and a 9.9% rise in 2018, the number is expected to rise by just 6% this summer.

Israeli carriers El Al Airlines, Israir and Arkia will account for about 490 of the 1,600 weekly flights, up from 472 the year before.