Opening the skies

Tourism Minister is expected to let an airline besides El Al ferry passengers to New York.

November 9, 2005 02:52
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Israel's national carrier El Al may soon lose its monopoly on the lucrative route to New York. Tourism Minister Avraham Hirschenson is expected to let another airline - probably Israir - ferry passengers to the popular destination. This move will likely usher in an "open skies" era to Israel. El Al's Israeli competitors aren't the only ones interested in giving it more competition. Foreign airlines are no less eager. Many of them are seeking permission to increase the numbers of their flights here, arguing that "open skies" would inevitably lower airfares and bring a tourist bonanza to this country. Foreigners, they maintain, are more likely to fly on their own airlines, as well as on the major low-cost carriers. Some compare the existing situation to the protectionism that prevailed here yesteryear in industry, driving up the prices of consumer goods while limiting their availability. There's little doubt that the lifting of protection changed the face of the local marketplace. Store shelves are stocked every bit as abundantly as those overseas and the prices are becoming less prohibitive. Israeli shoppers can indulge themselves as never before. Plainly this process has harmed numerous domestic producers, but Israel, equally plainly, has wide interests in being a vibrant part of the global market. Still, that doesn't necessarily render an ultra-competitive, merciless marketplace just or socially desirable. Now globalization may be about to revolutionize Israeli air-travel. For the personal finances of the individual passenger, this can prove instantly beneficial. Competition is bound to drive ticket prices lower and is likely to improve service. One estimate is that a flight to Europe will cost at least $100 less right off. The aim isn't necessarily to cater to the Israeli's penchant for flying but to attract foreign holidaymakers here and thereby create more jobs in the hotel, restaurant and tour-guide sectors. But this picture is incomplete. Airlines worldwide are having a difficult time staying airborne. Many familiar old logos are gone. Others are barely staying solvent and in America some of the more famous mainstays are in bankruptcy protection. There is a school of opinion that blames "open skies" for destabilizing them. These barely-surviving air-carriers have hardly improved service. Far from it. Many frequent flyers report incidents of substandard service if not outright insolence, overcrowding, lack of amenities and basic comfort. Add in the essential, but inconvenient, security checks, and it's unarguable that flying today isn't what it was even a decade ago. Against this backdrop, El Al emerges far better than it used to. The service once routinely derided now appears far friendlier and more efficient than in the recent past. It would be most unfortunate, in the alacrity to enjoy cheaper tickets, to throw this baby out with the bath water. What's needed is a common-sense approach - a carefully calibrated opening of competition to those airlines with a track record of reliability and high standards. As other airlines cut and canceled flights amid the outbreak of violence five years ago, Germany's Lufthansa, for instance, maintained its capacity and frequency and then increased it to meet demand. It was subsequently ordered to cut back, and reasonably feels aggrieved and deserving of better treatment. As for El Al, it may no longer be a state-owned company but even a private concern can merit special consideration. Despite all of the open-skies hype internationally, plenty of governments still prop up their privately owned carriers. We all recall highest-level American interference on behalf of their airlines flying here. Things are not always as liberal and open as they seem. While we take strong issue with the threats reportedly sounded by El Al employees campaigning against change, El Al does offer unparalleled safety to its passengers, and a viable and trustworthy national carrier is of unique importance to a country as beleaguered as Israel continues to be. When America was on the verge of invading Iraq in 2003, when gas masks were distributed here and the fear of rocket attacks was oppressive, foreign airlines suspended their service. (It should again be noted that Lufthansa, which stresses that Israel is not "just another destination" and vows to always operate here in good times and bad, suspended flights for only two days before resuming operations.) El Al kept Israel's air lanes uninterruptedly open.

Send us your comments >> Rafi, Zichron Yaakov: The problem is two-fold, first you need to open the skies, and secondly you need to do away with price fixing and other external forces that control pricing. It does not make sense that a direct 4 hour flight from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt costs about $800 economy whether you fly El Al or Lufthansa. This is a joke and proves that even though we have two airlines serving this route, there is effectively no competition and prices not insane regardless. The Tel Aviv to Frankfurt route is particularly important for Israel/European business ties. Sarah, Zurich: I agree totally with Rafi. It costs nearly $1,000 to fly direct from Zurich to Tel Aviv (while other passengers on the same plane, coming from other European cities via Zurich to Israel pay considerably less, and even passengers from NY pay just a few dollars more.) When one complains to the airline, one is told, "Well, you have no other choice, do you?"

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