Eilat's New Airport Is a Breath of Fresh Air

A visit to the new $473.5m airport outside Eilat reveals meticulous architectural attention, including an effort to blend in with the desert and a sophisticated design aesthetic. Only transport issues mar the picture

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The Ramon Airport was built over the past five years at a cost of 1.75 billion shekels ($473.5 million)
The Ramon Airport was built over the past five years at a cost of 1.75 billion shekels ($473.5 million)Credit: Einat Siboni / Dania Sibus
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

I arrived at the spanking-new Ilan and Asaf Ramon International Airport after visiting two other small airports – the old one in Eilat that Ramon Airport is replacing, and the Sde Dov Airport in north Tel Aviv. While the two older airports are crowded, neglected, dirty, unpleasant and reminiscent of Third World airports, the visit to the new one, located north of Eilat and next to the Timna Nature Reserve, is a very refreshing experience. There was undoubtedly a sense of a return there to the 21st century, during which airports have become the world’s most sophisticated, grandiose and expensive buildings.

The Ramon Airport was built over the past five years at a cost of 1.75 billion shekels ($473.5 million) – an astronomical sum for an Israeli public facility (albeit lower than the cost of other airports of similar size). It will replace not only the airport in Eilat, but also the international airport at Uvda.

The new airport – named after the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and his son Asaf, an Israel Air Force pilot who died during a training exercise – will begin its operations gradually in the coming months. During the first stage it is expected to serve 1.8 million passengers a year: about 1.4 million on domestic flights and about 400,000 on international flights. It will eventually be able, in its present building, to deal with traffic of up to 4.25 million passengers a year, including 1.25 million on international flights. If the government so desires, the terminal can be enlarged on both sides.

Ramon Airport was designed by two of the largest architecture firms in Israel – Amir Mann-Ami Shinar Architects and Planners, and Moshe Tzur Architects & Town Planners Ltd. Mann-Shinar had experience in planning support structures for Ben-Gurion International Airport, in Tel Aviv. The firm of Moshe and Orna Tzur is known for designing many high-rises, including the Azrieli Sarona Tower in Tel Aviv.

The roof/ceiling is supported by impressive stanchions, each of which is made of four smaller pillars that emerge from a common foundation, each one splitting off into a different direction. Credit: NICK HUFTON / Hufton+Crow Photog

The firms worked with some 45 consultants, who advised them on matters such as roadways, flood protection, runways, systems coordination, the environment, etc. Local airports and seaports must meet a strict international standards. In the case of the new airport, planners had to comply with 1,480 International Civil Aviation Organization licensing requirements.

The airport is about 18 kilometers north of Eilat and abuts the community of Be’er Ora. When there are no traffic jams, the trip takes about 20 minutes from the southern resort city. One enters the airport via a security pavilion that is a few hundred meters away from the passenger terminal, and is composed of an angular roof supported by a number of three-legged stanchions, echoing the design language of the support structures elsewhere in the airport.

At the entrance to the terminal is a parking lot designed by architect Lital Szmuk, who is in charge of the landscape development of the project. The parking lot is not planned in a grid-like fashion, like many parking lots, but is inspired by the desert surroundings. The lanes in the lots are curved, and follow the fan shape of the natural estuary of the streams – which of course won’t be flowing in the region, due to massive the earthworks undertaken to prevent floods.

What is missing here for now are the pergolas that appear in the simulations and blueprints. Apparently the budget for them ran out, but the desert spring that brings intense heat as early as April and May will apparently force the Israel Airports Authority to build them.

Extending the runways

The passenger terminal covers an area of 38,000 square meters. One floor serves both departing and arriving passengers, on both foreign and domestic flights. The building is constructed of steel beams that were assembled with screws, because it is hard to use soldering methods in the desert. An aluminum “envelope” tops the steel construction. On the inside the terminal is covered with bamboo panels that line the ceiling and the walls.

Architect Amir Mann, who headed the design team, declares with childlike enthusiasm that there isn’t a single straight wall in the structure, adding, “we made sure to maintain this language in every part of the project. In the support structures and the control tower, too. This is an architectural decision that doesn’t exist in most of the airports in the world.”

At the moment the mass of bamboo and other design elements is impressive. We have to hope that they won’t be sullied in the future with posters and advertisements, as at Ben-Gurion airport.

The roof/ceiling is supported by impressive stanchions, each of which is made of four smaller pillars that emerge from a common foundation, each one splitting off into a different direction. Mann says that acacia trees were the inspiration for these structures, because “they have a low trunk and they widen at the top. The point of attachment of the smaller pillars is not symmetrical. Like almost everything in the airport, there is no off-the-shelf product here.”

Rafi Elbaz, deputy director for planning and engineering at the IAA, says construction of the airport in Timna was delayed because “during the process of implementing the plans, they [the architects] added a large number of features” – apparently some of them in the airport’s surroundings and several within the structure itself.

Ramon AirportCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“We had to divert the stream and build a bridge over Highway 90, and the explosion of the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline affected the drainage work,” Elbaz explains. “We were asked to lengthen the runway from 3,100 to 3,600 meters, so that it would be suitable for [aircraft used for] long-distance flights, as far as the United States and the Far East. Originally the airport was designed for flights as far away as Helsinki.

“In addition, we enlarged the apron [or tarmac] surrounding the places where the planes are parked. There were 30 [spots for planes] originally; now there are 58. And we also had technical and operational changes,” says Elbaz.

For his part, Mann notes that difficulties that were “not on paper” were discovered in the course of the work, and adds, “In the summer it’s very hard to work there. It’s hard to pour concrete.”

An amazing view

Although Ramon Airport is complex in terms of its design, it’s easy to move around in. You pass the check-in counters and from there continue to the security area and passport control. Afterward you get to a balcony that overlooks the departure gates that are one level below. This is the most impressive area in the airport. As opposed to most airports, which make you feel as if you are in an isolated area, from the balcony there is a breathtaking view of the hills of Edom, and you can watch planes taking off and landing.

“We didn’t want people to see only the wheels of the planes,” says Mann. “We wanted them to see the entire plane. This part of the terminal also features a series of cafes and shops” including duty-free stores.

From the balcony passengers descend to the gates. There are no “sleeves” – jetways used to access the aircraft from the terminal. One either walks to the planes or are transferred there by bus.

On the balcony architect Assaf Mann, son of Amir and a partner in the family’s firm, says, “We knew that there’s a difference of eight meters from the entrance to the takeoff area, and we decided to ‘bury’ all the technical parts – the [infrastructural] systems, the air conditioning, the baggage-check area and more – inside the ground, under the check-in and security areas. In effect we created a platform that looks out over the desert, and there’s nothing on the roof of the building either. We wanted to create a fifth façade, so passengers would land and see a roof without any of the technical systems on it.”

Entrance façade of the terminal at the new Ilan and Asaf Ramon Airport, outside Eilat. Planners had to comply with 1,480 International Civil Aviation Organization licensing requirements.Credit: Nick Hufton / Hufton+Crow Photography

The balcony area is the highest in the terminal – 21 meters, as compared to 15 meters in most of the building. The architects promise that despite the blazing sun outside, it will be pleasant to be in the building even during the summer; they have conducted numerous simulations to ensure proper climate control. To reduce the effect of the sun’s rays inside, the building was planned so that it has no projecting windows on the façades.

The west and east sides of the terminal feature slanted façades that are shaded by the roof. The northern and southern façades have no windows at all, and the lighting inside is provided by two large interior patios. One creates a boundary between the takeoff and landing areas, and contains a café and a little pool. The other, salami-shaped patio is parallel to the eastern and western façades, cutting through the structure and separating the area of the departure gates from the rest of the airport.

The design of the open areas was inspired by the desert environs and it penetrates the patios and is evident between the terminal building itself and the two large support structures, used for maintenance, on its two sides. These are totally covered by a roof, to enable ground-support and technical crews to work in the shade all year round. The architects add that a large proportion of the materials used for building the structures at Ramon Airport and covering the ground around them, came from nearby quarries. “When we dug, we discovered good materials for building and decided to use it,” says Amir Mann.

The design language of the patios that are inspired by Timna’s geology, which seem to eat into the structure of the airport, is the same language that informs the furnishings – particularly, the check-in, information and security counters. They are faced with a white surface material called Corian, and wood insets.

We could be petty and focus on certain elements of the design of Ramon Airport. It may have been possible to skip some of the meticulous attention to form – for example, the lighting elements composed of triangles, which detract from the appearance of the bamboo-panelled ceiling. The front (western) façade that receives the passengers could have been simpler, since the important formative architectural surprise is revealed inside. But these are esoteric arguments that will take place in schools of architecture or in private discussions among architects, because in a country like Israel very few structures are being built these days that you can even call architecture – as distinct from the simply boring concrete boxes being used for residential purposes or workplaces.

Transportation woes

How will passengers arriving at Ramon Airport get to Eilat? Today, when you arrive in Eilat by plane you disembark by foot, and within a few minutes you can walk to the city’s hotel area. The new airport is a reasonable distance from the city, but the transportation solutions being offered are insufficient. Although new Egged bus routes are planned, as well as a shuttle service suited to arrival times, some say that it won’t be enough. A taxi driver who drove me to the airport said that there are already traffic jams at certain hours at the entrance to Eilat and that taxi drivers won’t come to pick up passengers because it won’t be worth their while.

Another person who is worried about access to the airport is Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi: “I had a difficult discussion with the Transportation Ministry and with representatives of Netivei Israel [the National Transport Infrastructure Company],” he says. “The shuttle is insufficient. The trip from the airport to the city will create a traffic jam. There’s a traffic jam from the airport exit to the city.” He says that several steps have been taken to ease the problem, but they are insufficient.

Check-in counters at the Ramon Airport, reflecting the overall design approach. The asymmetrical pillars are inspired by acacia trees.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“They widened the traffic circles and they widened lanes in the first security check area. But that’s not the solution. The only solution is a sterile lane, a light rail or a bus that travels in its own lane. Not only private cars travel on Highway 90, so do trucks. That can be solved at a cost of several tens of millions, which is a small budgetary item compared to the investment in the airport.”

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