Eilat Airport Slated to Open in 2018 After Years of Delay Over post-Gaza War Security Requirements

After 2014's Operation Protective Edge, Israel sees Ramon facility designed for tourist trade as Ben-Gurion backup in an emergency

A photo of Ramon International Airport, an international airport currently under construction in the Timna Valley in southern Israel.
Mark Israel Salem

In March 2016, Israeli Transportation Minister Israel Katz proudly proclaimed that the new airport near Eilat, named after the late astronaut Ilan Ramon, would be ready in a little more than a year.

The year has long since passed and work on the airport is still going on. The Israel Airports Authority says it expects the facility to finally open sometime in 2018, but declines to be more specific about the date. Industry sources believe it will be towards the end of next year.

Ramon Airport is designed to ferry tourists in and out of the southern resort town of Eilat, which is now served by a tiny municipal airport as well as by Ovda Air Base. Once dismissed as a white elephant in the making, Ramon is now regarded as a financially viable project as Eilat tourism has enjoyed a big revival.

Thanks to a Tourism Ministry initiative to subsidize airlines flying in tourists from Europe, some 128,000 visitors flew to Eilat last year. This winter tourism season should see 55 flights arriving in Eilat every week.

The bulk of the delays in completing construction of the Ramon Airport, which began four-and-a-half years ago and is budegted at 1.7 billion shekels ($480 million) stems from changes in security requirements, most of them arising out of the trauma of Operation Protective Edge.

During the 2014 war, a Hamas rocket crashed close to Ben-Gurion International Airport, causing the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority to bar American carriers from landing there for close to two days. Foreign airlines followed suit.

Israeli officials realized that without Ben-Gurion, the country’s main international gateway, Israel had no international airport that could serve as a substitute in an emergency. As a result, Katz ordered changes to the airport’s original plans. Runways were extended to a length of 3.6 kilometers, 500 meters more than planned, to accommodate all types of aircraft, even jumbo jets. He also doubled the airport’s capacity for parking planes to 60.

Beyond that, Ramon Airport has special security needs of its own. The final protocol for the airport will only be completed in February, sources said. The facility in the southern Arava Valley, located close to the Jordanian border, presents especially challenging security requirements. One such requirement is a perimeter fence, which will be tens of meters high when completed.

Ramon faces other possible delays. It needs an international operating license, which will take several months to get. There’s also a lengthy trial period as the IAA learns to synchronize that airport’s multiple systems, ranging from baggage claim to trash collection. One malfunctioning system could delay the opening date.

In addition, the city of Eilat is threatening to block the opening if improvements aren’t made to Route 90, the road linking Ramon to the city.

“It would never occur to me that hundreds of flights would be landing at the new airport, in which they’ve invested so much, but that the road out of it would be jammed with traffic. Some of the best airports in the world have failed because there was no access to the city it served,” said Mayor Yitzhak Halevi.

Meanwhile, Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich has said he won’t give his approval to open the airport if there is not adequate police presence. That means housing a permanent police station at an annual cost of 18 million shekels, an outlay no government body so far has agreed to pick up. The fire service is making similar demands.

Officials don’t express concern about the delays. The Ben-Gurion 2000 project, which was supposed to give Israel a completely new terminal and other facilities in time for the millennium, wasn’t completed until 2004.

“Whatever the delays, the fact is construction of the airport is being completed in record time under difficult conditions,” said one official, who declined to be identified. “Even if there’s a delay of a few months, it’s no disaster. Is there any national project in the State of Israel that was competed in time? That’s the way it is with big projects.”