A $330 flight to London around New Year's Eve might sounds far-fetched, but that's what Rafi from Tel Aviv paid low-cost airline EasyJet two months ago. "This isn't my first time flying EasyJet and I always find it pleasant," he says. "It was worth the plane ticket just to do some cheap shopping and come back."
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But there's no point rushing to the company's website to find the same deal. Prices on flights such as this typically go up as the departure date draws near.
Israel Airports Authority chief executive Yaakov Ganot has instructed that all requests by low-cost airlines to operate out of Ben-Gurion airport's Terminal 1 during the winter schedule – which started last week – be approved. This came in response to demand for more flights and the decision by the government and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to implement the Open Skies pact.
The airport's management has approved 22 new weekly fights, raising the number of weekly low-cost flights out of Terminal 1 this winter to 55. Open Skies will take effect gradually over the next five years, but the first stage will likely be implemented this coming spring and summer.
The western wing of Terminal 1 began serving low-cost flights last week. "The (Open Skies) agreement provides momentum for low-cost flights to and from Israel and opens up new flight destinations for airlines throughout Europe with no restriction," said Katz speaking at the opening ceremony. "This is a revolution that will enable Israel's middle class to fly abroad."
The discount airlines currently operating from Terminal 1 are EasyJet to Britain, Switzerland, and Italy; Wizz Air to Hungary, Romania, and Lithuania; and Norwegian Air to Sweden. Others, using Terminal 3, include Air Berlin to Germany; Niki to Austria; and Veuling Airlines to Spain.
All in all, nine low-cost foreign airlines flew out of Ben-Gurion airport this past summer, accounting for 8% of the airport's traffic – double their percentage in the previous summer.
Arkia, Israir, and El Al are also asking that some of their flights be recognized as low-cost and allowed to depart from Terminal 1 where the fees are lower. A special IAA committee is looking into the request.
"The Open Skies revolution is already here," says Yehuda Zafrani, deputy CEO of Ophir Tours. "In the last two years we have witnessed a large number of new destinations for the Israeli market and incoming tourism. According to the figures, in 2014 there will be more than 1 million low-cost passengers and this is a very significant market share.
Flights by low-cost carriers have several unique characteristics distinguishing them from those of charter companies and mainstream airlines. They operate according to a fixed schedule and normally land at smaller airfields where fees are lower. The companies own their own fleets and don't use their planes for any other purposes. The ground services they require are usually kept to a minimum and turnaround time on the ground is kept short.
Customers of discount airlines buy their tickets on the Internet rather than through travel agents. There is no prearranged seating and meals are bought and paid for during the flight. Other services normally provided by airlines and charter companies aren't offered. Also, the relatively low prices increase as the departure date approaches.
Terminal 1 is expected to serve 260,000 passengers by the end of 2013, 50% more than the 172,000 travelers passing through in 2012. By 2016 the terminal's eastern wing will be ready to absorb all the domestic air traffic from Tel Aviv's Sde Dov.
The western wing of Terminal 1 is now open to low-cost carriers from 2 P.M. to 10 P.M. with capacity for 25 to 30 flights a day, but beginning next summer it will be set to operate around the clock if needed. During the summer 130 weekly flights are anticipated, with 100 weekly flights during the winter months, so that 900,000 passengers will be departing during the year from Terminal 1 out of the over 14 million passengers passing through the airport.
"The growth in the number of flights to Israel by low-cost airlines is excellent news from a consumer perspective," says Yossi Fatael, director of the Israel Tourist and Travel Agents Association. "The low prices generated new demand for outbound tourism both in the winter and summer. People who never thought before about flying in the winter or flying abroad at all will now be going. Every destination with low-cost flights will undoubtedly see prices for regular flights reduced."
But Israelis need to check what the no-frills price includes. "You need to take into account another 50 euros to 70 euros per suitcase that isn't included in the basic price and other costs for seating and the like," says Zafrani. "This is particularly important because booking low-cost means 'you touched, you flew.' There's no option on canceling."
One of the main problems with low-cost carriers is that Israel's Consumer Protection Law doesn’t apply to them if they don't have a local office – as in the case of EasyJet. So reduced cancellation fees when canceling a transaction within 14 days of booking until seven days from the departure date, as mandated by the law, don’t always cover low-cost flights.
"Israeli law doesn’t apply to these companies even though they fly out of Israel and the transaction is done by Israelis," says Fatael.
It should also be kept in mind that last-minute reservations on a low-cost flight aren't always worthwhile. "Booking low-cost is only worthwhile months in advance," says Zafrani. "The low prices of 150 euros each way hold for three to six months before the flight. In the case of such flights we see Israelis coming around and changing their ways to booking early."
Attention should also be given to flight schedules. For example, EasyJet takes off from Israel for London in the evening and returns in the morning which means the customer loses complete days abroad. There are also destinations without daily departures. You can fly EasyJet to Rome, for instance, only twice a week.
With the winter flight schedule taking effect on October 27, EasyJet expanded operations in Israel and added a fifth weekly flight to its Geneva route. Over the first nine months of the year 90,600 passengers flew EasyJet from Ben-Gurion airport to Geneva, 7% less than the year before.
In September EasyJet launched its new air route to Rome, its fifth European destination out of Ben-Gurion airport after London (Luton Airport), Manchester, Basel and Geneva, and now operates 22 weekly flights from Israel. There are also plans to add Berlin to its list of destinations this summer.
"The new service from Tel Aviv to Rome continues the company's tradition of aiming to make flying easy and affordable for business and leisure travelers between Israel and Europe," says Hugh Aitken, EasyJet's commercial manager for the U.K. and the Middle East. "The rates to the new destination are 44 euros from Ben-Gurion airport to Rome (one-way) including taxes and about 43 euros for the return flight from Rome to Ben-Gurion airport. The new line exemplifies EasyJet's commitment to being a long-term partner to Israel's economy and tourism industry."