Will Ben-Gurion Make It Through the Long, Hot Summer?

The Knesset Economics Committee held a special meeting yesterday on the Israel Airports Authority's (IAA) preparations for the heavy flow of travelers expected over the summer. The meeting was convened on the backdrop of concerns voiced by the foreign airlines regarding the ability of the airport services to cope on peak traffic days.

On Sunday, a panel of foreign airline managers in Israel met with Ben-Gurion International Airport managing director Ze'ev Sarig, and presented him with a list of problems that could hamper the flow of traveler traffic in July and August.

The main issue raised was the shortage of check-in counters in the departures hall during peak hours and on the busiest days due to the charter companies' use of counters normally assigned to the regular airlines. This lengthens the waiting time at the other counters and affects the proper provision of check-in services. Since the charter companies operate on a seasonal basis, this problem is expected to be even worse at the height of the outgoing summer tourism season.

Avi Friedman, who chairs the panel of foreign airlines in Israel and is the local manager for Continental Airlines, noted at the meeting that the passenger capacity of the planes traveling to and from Israel this summer is much greater than last year, and even today there are problems of crowding in front of the check-in counters.

According to data collected by the Civil Aviation Authority at the Transportation Ministry, airline passenger traffic in April-May 2006 was up 15 percent over the parallel period in 2005. IAA figures indicate that in July-August 12,830 take-offs and landings are scheduled at Ben-Gurion, carrying some 2.25 million passengers - 10 percent more than last summer.

Five days in particular are expected to be especially busy, and to break records for passenger traffic, with over 50,000 passengers in a 24-hour period. On 19 other days, over 40,000 passengers are expected. Fears of a collapse of services on the peak days have prompted Friedman to call on IAA director general Gabi Ophir to open the old terminal (Terminal 1) for the charter companies, in order to ease the burden on the regular check-in counters in the new terminal.

'We are prepared'

The foreign airlines also complained about the placement of the counters for passengers picking up or changing their tickets. The airlines have asked the IAA to move these counters to the front of the departures hall, in order to improve the level of service to travelers. The IAA responded that it would examine this possibility.

Another problem is the delay in the installation of automatic machines for issuing boarding passes for passengers traveling with foreign airlines. At present, such machines at Ben-Gurion operate only for El Al passengers. The IAA and the panel agreed to work toward solving this problem, but the machines will not be ready for this summer's busiest days.

Also on the panel's agenda is expediting the establishment of a new pre-flight center to be run jointly by the IAA and the foreign airlines. It turns out that despite a decision on this matter, no suitable site has yet been found for the center, so no pre-flight services will be available this summer for passengers on foreign airlines. The practical implication of this is more passengers waiting at the check-in counters at Ben-Gurion.

On Monday, an IAA spokesperson told TheMarker that the airport is ready for the peak traffic days and starting this week the IAA will publish guidelines in the newspapers for passengers traveling abroad, as it did before Passover.

Yesterday, the IAA started its ad campaign, including recommendations such as arriving at the airport three hours before the scheduled flight time.

"The IAA is prepared for the increase in passenger traffic," assured Ophir, "and will provide passengers departing through Terminal 3 with pleasant and efficient service in keeping with international standards.

"We are constantly improving procedures, based on surveys conducted among the passengers and in keeping with standard practices abroad."

However, at the committee meeting the IAA did say it would examine the possibility of reopening the old international terminal at the airport, and moving part of international airline travel back there as an emergency measure during the peak summer months.

Nevertheless, it also criticized Friedman's suggestion to move only charter traffic back to Terminal 1, explaining that the charter companies were not second-class citizens and deserve the same level of service as the regular airlines in the new terminal.

Other actions to be taken by the IAA according to Ophir and Sarig are the addition of staff and managers to bolster the regular workforce throughout the airport, as well as recommending to passengers to sign up for the biometric border check service.

The IAA will also provide free luggage carts, a play center for children, as well as restaurants and coffee shops for passengers in the duty-free area. Porters will also be available for a fee.

Long term-parking will also be available for NIS 25 a day, with covered long-term parking costing NIS 40 a day.