Talks between the German Civil Aviation Authority and its Israeli counterparts in Tel Aviv this week ended in disappointment for the German delegation as German carrier Lufthansa said Thursday the Israeli authority turned down a request to increase the number of flights between the two countries due to the ongoing conflict in the North.
"We are extremely disappointed with the decision not to discuss plans for the summer season of 2007," said Ofer Kisch, general manager of Lufthansa Israel, who sat in the meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. "This is a step backwards from policies taken and reforms launched earlier in the year and we hope the Transportation Ministry will rethink its decision despite the current conflict."
The German delegation sought to raise the number of scheduled flights operated per week by each country's carriers from 18 to 25. Lufthansa, which operates 14 of the German weekly flights, with HapagFly taking the remaining four, is looking to use the extra daily flights to restart its route to Tel Aviv from Munich.
The discussions followed an agreement in February to allow Lufthansa to increase capacity on its Tel Aviv operation after the airline was refused a capacity increase in an effort to protect the local carriers during the difficult years for tourism through the intifada. Lufthansa started using bigger planes on the route April 1.
Neither Civil Aviation Authority nor Transportation Ministry officials were available for comment due to government offices being closed for Tisha Be'av on Thursday. The parties will meet again in January to discuss the issue.
While the Germans say they were told the reasons behind the decision to turn down the latest request was the government's unwillingness to deal with the matter while the fighting in the North continues, industry professionals suspected the move was a fresh attempt to protect El Al, which has come under increasing pressure from added competition and the effects of the situation in the North on the tourism industry.
Last month, the Israeli carrier issued a profit warning for the end of the year even as many US and European based airlines reported healthy profits in the first half. Furthermore, the Israel Airports Authority reported Thursday that El Al carried 39 percent of the passengers that passed through Ben-Gurion Airport in July, down 10.33% from its share last July.
Granting the extra flights would not help El Al as it would likely result in competition on a new route from one of its strongest competitors - El Al operates daily flights to Munich - and it would not be guaranteed of receiving the extra seven weekly flights up for grabs as Israir and Arkia eye scheduled status to a German city.
"While I agree it is not the most appropriate time to hold the discussions, the question can be asked why the government is continuing to protect El Al as a private company," said tour operator Mark Feldman, managing director of ZionTours. "On the other side, it's a phenomenal message that one of the largest airlines in the world is asking to increase their flights here in the middle of a war."
Lufthansa, meanwhile, said that while it has had a few cancellations since the conflict started 24 days ago, these were not on a major scale and that it has also continued to take steady bookings from customers. This goes against the trend in the industry, which has complained about the lack of new reservations being made on flights and in the country's hotels.
For Lufthansa, Tel Aviv has been a successful stop even through the intifada, during which it was consistently the largest foreign carrier in Israel, and it continues to look to invest here.
"Despite the current security situation and uncertainty, we are optimistic that tourists will resume vacationing in Israel," Lufthansa's Kisch said. "We believe the situation is limited to this summer and are interested today in getting ready for next year's season."