As passengers awaited their flights at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday morning, two furry, lion-like creatures began dancing to Chinese music between gates C7 and C8 in Terminal 3.
“That’s a ceremony that’s supposed to introduce success, richness and prosperity to the route,” said Jonathan Bailey, Israel country manager for Cathay Pacific.
The flag carrier of Hong Kong launched its inaugural route to and from Israel on Sunday, with the landing of the company’s Airbus A350 at Ben-Gurion Airport at 7:50 a.m. and the departure of the first flight eastbound six hours later. Between the two flights that morning, the airline hosted a celebratory event in the C concourse, during which company executives and Israeli officials stressed the importance of strengthening the business and tourism links between Israel and China.
“We are very excited to launch this service,” said Paul Loo, director of corporate development at Cathay Pacific. “As Tel Aviv is such a technologically advanced business capital and Hong Kong is the international financial center in Asia, we are very excited to link these two cities together.”
From Sunday on, Cathay Pacific will be operating four flights out of Tel Aviv each week, departing at 1:50 p.m. on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and four flights from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv, departing at 1 a.m. on the same days.
“In addition to the fourtimes- a-week service we have in our plan, we will launch an additional fifth service in our autumn peak,” Loo said. “We look forward to many more successful years in Israel.”
The only other airline currently offering direct flights between Israel and Hong Kong is El Al, which typically operates six flights in each direction every week.
The company is using the Airbus A350 – the plane’s first time in Israel – equipped with 280 seats, including 214 in economy class, 28 seats in premium economy and 38 seats in business.
Thus far, Cathay Pacific has 12 such planes and will be completing an order this year for an additional 10, according to Loo.
Following the gate-side celebration on Sunday morning, where waiters hovered with tiny hors d’oeuvres and offered tall glasses of champagne, journalists toured the plane before its return to Hong Kong. The spotless aircraft features teal-colored seats to match the airline’s logo, with flower bouquets in tiny vases throughout the cabin – even in the plane’s lavatories.
Each business class passenger receives a private, diagonally positioned seat with a lateral bed extension, under-ottoman stowage, a touchscreen video handset and large monitor.
Economy seats have six-way headrests, personal screens, shelves to hold tablets and amenity stowage areas.
“The truth is that I heard some complaints from Israelis who have experienced flying with Cathay Pacific,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin joked on Sunday morning. “They are saying that the flight to Hong Kong is too short.”
Cathay Pacific’s decision to begin a flight route to and from Israel comes at a time when not only has Chinese tourism to the country significantly increased, but also as airlines around the world are expanding services to Tel Aviv, Levin explained.
“Cathay Pacific joins us in a very important moment for the tourism industry in Israel,” he said.
Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who arrived at Ben-Gurion to greet the Cathay Pacific plane as it landed, likewise spoke of this moment, noting that 140 airlines are now flying to and from Israel.
“I am so happy and proud that the company chose to fly to Ben-Gurion Airport, to fly to Israel,” Katz said.
In addition to Cathay Pacific, Levin told participants at the event that China’s Hainan Airlines was among the companies that began offering flights to Israel over the past year. Air India also plans to open up a route in the coming months, followed by Ryanair in October, he added.
“The list is very, very long. I am very optimistic,” Levin said.
“I’m sure you’ll do excellent business here. I think seeing the flag of Cathay Pacific here in Israel is something we are very thankful for.”
Both Israel and China are “experiencing a boom” in tourists from one another, with about 80,000 Chinese tourists landing in Tel Aviv in 2016 – about a 70% jump from the year before, according to Cai Weiming, chargé d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Israel.
“We strongly believe that the launch of Cathay Pacific’s direct flight from Hong Kong will further boost two-way travelers from these two countries,” Cai said.
Cathay Pacific offering flights to and from Israel also comes at a time when the countries are celebrating 25 years of bilateral relations, he said, and follows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to China the week before.
“Both sides reached a broad consensus of bilateral cooperation and decided to establish a innovative comprehensive partnership,” Cai said, stressing the great potential of China-Israel relations. “We hope the increase of direct flights between China and Israel will push our bilate