Israel-EU Air Traffic Grows as Open Skies Spurs More Flights, Lower Fares

Low-cost carriers leading the growth as Israeli airlines also add flights.

Nir Keidar

Low-cost airlines have led the growth in air traffic between Israel and the European Union since the two sides signed the Open Skies aviation agreement in 2013, with their share of the market growing to 8.8% last year from just 2.6% in 2012, Israel’s Civil Aviation Authority said on Sunday.

Since Israel signed the Open Skies accord, which gradually eliminates restrictions on the number of airlines operating on Israel-EU routes, in June 2013 the number of seats has grown by 9.5%. That compared with just an 0.6% increase in the two years before the accord.

Meanwhile, the number of passengers rose by 11% in 2013 and by 6% in 2014, even though that was a year when incoming tourism to Israel was depressed by Operation Protective Edge.

“There was an increase in the number of passenger and an increase in the level of competition between airlines,” the report said. “The main growth engine for the increasing number of flight to EU destinations since the agreement was signed was due to discount airlines.”

Three low-cost carriers – EasyJet, WizzAir and Norwegian – have begun operating scheduled flights from Ben-Gurion International Airport’s Terminal 1, a smaller aging facility far away from the main Terminal 3. Between them, they operated an average of 49 flights a week last year.

The supply of seats grew particularly sharply between Israel and Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Poland, Denmark, Cyprus and Bulgaria, the authority said.

Despite the stiffer competition, Israeli airlines, contrary to their fears, have also benefited from the growing market. They flew 12% more flights last year than in 2013, and 3% more in 2013 than 2012, the report said. That marked a turnaround from the two previous years, when Israeli carriers had reduced the number of scheduled flights.

Israeli carriers recaptured some of the market share in term of flights that had been losing in previous years, and accounted for 40.8% of all flights coming into and out of Israel. They also saw their passenger traffic increase by 11% in 2014 and 6% in 2013, the authority said.

The trend took a hit in the second half of last year during and after Operation Protective Edge. The 50-day conflict caused many Israelis to cancel reservations and many more foreign tourists to do the same, especially after many carrier suspended flights out of Ben-Gurion Airport due to security concerns.

Ironically, Israel’s southern resort city Eilat was hurt by Open Skies, the report said. The number of international and domestic flights dropped last year by 21% and 3%, respectively.

Israeli vacationers opted for holidays overseas because flights to the EU had gone down, said executives in the tourism sector. Meanwhile, hotel rates in Eilat climbed sharply in the first half of the year, due to a stronger shekel and strong demand from foreign visitors.

But the high rate, combined the Protective Edge, saw foreign tourism to Eilat plunge from the summertime onwards. While Israeli tourism recovered in the autumn, foreign visitors are still avoiding the city, where the number of tourists flying there directly through Ovda Airport dropped to just 4,525 in December, a drop of 63.8% from a year earlier.