Israeli navigates German carrier through wars, recession

Ofer Kisch, the first Israeli Lufthansa manager, talks to the ‘Post’ before leaving.

Ofer Kisch 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ofer Kisch 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After eight years, Ofer Kisch, the first Israeli manager at Lufthansa, is leaving the country to build up the market in Eastern Europe, after having established a strong basis for the German carrier as it went through difficult and challenging times.
Just a few days before his departure, Kisch talked to The Jerusalem Post about the ups and downs the German airline experienced during a period of wars, strong growth, global recession and recovery.
“I came here from Turkey at the height of the [second] intifada, when no one wanted to fly to Israel,” Ofer recalled his first days in the position.
“In such a difficult time, instead of canceling all services, Lufthansa decided to appoint an Israeli manager for the region who would not be afraid and would try and find a solution to strengthen activity in Israel despite the security situation.”
Kisch takes much of the credit for keeping the German carrier in Israel throughout the eight-year period, even during times of war, when other airlines temporarily canceled flight services. Kisch succeeded in changing the business model to navigate the carrier’s Israel services through good and bad times and made Lufthansa the largest foreign airline in Israel.
“The intifada had a direct impact on incoming tourism.
Only French and to some extent American Jews showed a little solidarity, so we had to find a way of increasing sales as far as possible to be able to maintain flight services to Israel,” said Kisch.
“We had to give up the Tel Aviv-Munich route. But we put all of our efforts on promoting the Tel Aviv-Frankfurt route by focusing mainly on the Israeli market. We made business travelers, mainly in hi-tech companies, as well as economy passengers, great offers, at a time when they had no alternatives.
“We took a calculated risk but saw that this model – to invest into a premium product when other airlines drastically cut capacity or canceled their activity – was right. It has proven itself and formed the basis for our success and for building the strong platform and infrastructure Lufthansa enjoys in Israel today.”
Kisch believes that his experience in Israel will come in handy as he relocates this month to Budapest, where he will be responsible for developing Lufthansa’s operations in Eastern Europe, including Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Maldova.
Lufthansa began operating in Israel in 1968, not only for business reasons but also to act as a bridge between Germany and Israel and improve relations.
This year, Lufthansa’s passenger traffic to Israel grew by nearly 15 percent to 384,887 passengers, compared with 335,552 in 2009. Today, of the Lufthansa passengers to and from Germany, about 60% are foreigners and the remainder Israelis.
“Israel is a country of ups and downs. I have always received support from Germany,” said Kisch. “The Lufthansa management has always seen in Israel more than just another destination.
It has always represented a special destination and a bridge between the two countries.”
Following the blow the intifada dealt to incoming tourism, in 2005 passengers started to return and greater customer prosperity and economic growth allowed Lufthansa to start to increase capacity.
“This lasted until the Lebanon war in July 2006 and again we had to depend on the Israeli market,” said Kisch. “I don’t remember that during this period the Lufthansa management ever wanted to make changes or reduce capacity.”
The next project Kisch took up at the end of 2006 was to resume Tel Aviv-Munich flights. Following two-and-a-half years of difficult negotiations between the Israeli and German authorities, Lufthansa resumed flights on the route at the end of April 2009 after a six-year break. There are five weekly flights on Airbus 340- 300 planes between the two cities.
The service complements Lufthansa’s twice-daily service between Tel Aviv and Frankfurt, increasing its passenger capacity to Israel by 35%.
“It was a long and hard battle.
For a year, we couldn’t even get a meeting with the Israeli authorities. There was a lot of political pressure at the negotiating table but finally we came to an agreement at the end of 2008,” said Kisch.
“Now I have come to a point where for the time being we can’t get more frequency although we would like to have daily flights on the Munich route.”
Lufthansa believes that there is ample demand for Israel as a destination, despite the economic slowdown, which affected this country less than other destinations.
“There was a certain slowdown in business travel traffic during the global financial crisis but it was not significant.
For a short period of time, we had business travelers switching to economy class. Israel was much less hurt by the crisis and travel in economy class was not impacted,” said Kisch.
“There is demand for Israel and the addition of more German destinations will depend on the outcome of European aviation agreements.”
For his successor, Karsten Zang, who was in charge of Lufthansa in Northern Germany, Kisch sees a number of challenges and opportunities for the German carrier as the Israeli market becomes part of the global village.
“The situation in Israel is always vulnerable. It is a unique market in which you need to be prepared for difficult times and have a plan for every crisis that could come,” said Kisch.
“The challenge going forward is to maintain Lufthansa’s current situation in Israel by finding new growth opportunities.
Over the past few years, the Israeli market has become ever so global with more and more global companies in need of travel agreements with airlines that can offer international connections.”