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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Just one week before it was to conclude its scheduled service to Egypt, El Al Israel Airlines on Sunday agreed to continue operating its flights to Cairo until the end of January.
"We agreed to extend the flights for a month after the Transportation Ministry appealed to us on Sunday," El Al spokesperson Amalia Glaser told The Jerusalem Post.
The airline was due to end its Cairo service on December 31, having notified the government in August that it would stop flying the route due to the heavy security costs involved in keeping the line open. The airline shares the costs equally with the government.
It is the second extension the airline has agreed to and gives the Transportation Ministry more time as it seeks new avenues to keep an Israeli carrier on the route.
"It is in Israel's national interest to continue scheduled flights to Egypt and therefore guard this important component of the peace agreement between the two countries," Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said in a meeting with Salah Nabhan, El Al's representative in Cairo. "We will do our best to work with the Finance Ministry to bridge the gaps and make scheduled flights to Egypt possible."
Transportation Ministry spokesperson Timor Dill told the Post that following Sunday's meeting with Nabhan, Mofaz will appeal to the Finance Ministry to cover 75% of the security costs on the route for one year to encourage El Al to continue to fly to Cairo, dropping the airline's cost to 25%.
In addition, Dill said the government would embark on a campaign to encourage travel agents to book connections to Israel via Cairo.
El Al's Glaser said the company was unaware of such an offer and would not comment on the likelihood of accepting such a deal.
A Finance Ministry spokesperson added that she she, too, was unaware of the request.
While El Al used to operate daily flights between Cairo and Tel Aviv, its operation was reduced more recently to twice a week as tourist traffic on the route dropped, making it a line used mainly by diplomats.
Should El Al not agree to continue the route, the Transportation Ministry is expected to offer the flights to the two Israeli charter companies, Arkia and Israir.
Israir said it was examining the possibility of operating the flights following a request from the government and Arkia said it would be happy to fly to Cairo if offered.
Air Sinai, meanwhile, operates three flights a week between Tel Aviv and Cairo and stands to gain the most should a replacement for El Al not be found in time.
"The procedure for giving a new carrier a license is not an easy one and requires permission from the Egyptian authorities which takes time," sources close to the issue said. "There may be opposition in Egypt to allow another Israeli carrier and Air Sinai will want to control the route as an Egyptian carrier."
The Transportation Ministry's Dill said an answer was expected from the Treasury within a week.
Jacob Ben-Zvi contributed to this report.