Ukraine Rejects Allowing More Flights From Israel, Despite Bratslav Demand

An aviation crisis is looming between Israel and Ukraine over the latter's refusal to permit more flights between the countries to meet the needs of Bratslav Hasidim, who go there to visit the grave of the revered Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.

At a meeting convened Friday by Transportation Ministry Director General Gideon Sitterman, it was decided to demand new talks with Ukraine on opening the skies to competition on the Tel Aviv-Kiev line. However, a ministry spokesman denied there is a crisis.

The Bratslav Hasidim, who were represented at the meeting by MK Menachem Porush and attorney Gadi Elbaz, appealed to the ministry to make this line competitive by adding charter flights or, alternatively, appointing a second regular carrier from each country.

Travel to Ukraine has swelled, reaching 250,000 passengers last year, of whom 170,000 flew to Kiev. Thirty percent of this traffic is Bratslav Hasidim, who paid an average of $700 for airfare in 2007.

Bratslav representatives said that opening up the skies to real competition is the only way to get reasonable fares, with commensurate capacity. Under the existing aviation agreement, 14,000 seats may be added on flights over the Rosh Hashanah holiday, when Rabbi Nachman's adherents make their pilgrimage to Uman. The two countries' regular carriers get 5,000 seats each, with the rest going to Israeli and Ukrainian charter airlines. However, the Hasidim wish to visit the site throughout the year.

Israel wants to increase the number of flights and allow more charter companies to participate in 2008, but the Ukrainian aviation authorities have so far refused, in order to protect the national carrier.

A Transportation Ministry spokesman responded: "This is not an aviation crisis, but rather a request by the Bratslav Hasidim to increase the number of seats to Ukraine. The ministry director general held a discussion on that request."