Open skies key to boosting tourism

As the tourism sector awaits an anticipated government decision to grant Israir permission to run scheduled flights to New York, industry officials are looking to a more liberal aviation policy to lead tourism growth in 2006. All five tourism professionals interviewed by The Jerusalem Post listed the government's aviation policy amongst the most important catalysts to bring more tourists to the country. "Our biggest problem is the lack of aircraft, that supply is not meeting demand," said Marc Feldman, CEO of Zion Tours. "We need more planes to fly here more often." The "open skies debate" came to the fore again this week as El Al intensified its petitions to prevent Israir from gaining its change in status. The charter airline, which is owned by Nochi Dankner, currently operates three weekly flights to New York on a seasonal basis and has applied to the government for daily flights to operate in competition to El Al and Continental Airlines on the non-stop route. The addition of Israir to the market, however, was not expected to impact ticket prices. "Israir is already in the market but needs scheduled flights to get into the reservation system, which would make it easier to sell but it's not a cheaper airline," said Feldman. "What will affect price is a significant increase in planes coming to Israel. We need to embrace more airlines." One industry player noted that ticket prices were more sensitive to fuel prices. Meanwhile, El Al said this week it would turn to the Supreme Court to overturn a decision in favor of Israir. Its objection stems from a pledge by the government, before the company was privatized, to delay allowing other local carriers scheduled flight rights until air traffic to Israel rises to 10.5 million passenger arrivals annually, or if El Al's market share falls to less than 30% of scheduled passenger traffic on a given route (not including charters). El Al claims that these figures have not yet been achieved. While the Transportation Ministry usually has the final say on such matters, the Israir case was given over to the Tourism Ministry due to a possible conflict of interest because Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit's wife works with other Dankner companies in her public relations agency. The move was seen by most as favorable for Israir given that Tourism Minister Avraham Hirschson spent the greater part of this year preaching the merits of "opening the skies." The Transportation Ministry has adopted a more cautionary approach saying that it would consider each case on an individual basis. The policy has paid off for some and Air France said Thursday it has been approved to double the flights it operates between Paris and Tel Aviv to 14 beginning in March. Earlier this year the Supreme Court allowed Austrian Airlines to add two flights to its Tel Aviv schedule, overturning a government decision.