Tourism industry wary of open-skies committee

Some in the industry expressed concern that the new panel was the government's answer to El Al's call.

departure board 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
departure board 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Foreign airlines and the hotel industry are taking a skeptical approach to the decision by Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz over the weekend to establish a committee to examine Israel's aviation policy. "At the moment, we don't know what he wants to do," said Avi Friedman, Chairman of the Foreign Airlines Association. "We need to wait and see what comes out of the committee." Mofaz appointed a nine-member committee headed by Transportation Ministry director-general Gidon Siterman and including Tourism Minister director-general Nahum Itzkovich and Finance Ministry budget chief Koby Haber, to assess the open-skies policy and make recommendations on its implementation in the framework of Israel's aviation policy and how it would affect the foreign carriers. The minister has requested the team present its findings in three months, the Transportation Ministry said. The new committee replaces a task force set up in May 2005 that gave the Finance and Tourism ministries more say in the matter. That committee, which never met, was a child of then-tourism minister Avraham Hirchson, who was very vocal about "opening the skies" to competition. "I'm not sure why you need this [new] committee," said Eli Gonen, chairman of the Israel Hotels Association. "I just hope they don't destroy the successes the government has achieved in its aviation policy." The successes he referred to, mainly motivated by the Tourism Ministry, include an 20 percent rise in capacity by the foreign airlines at the start of the summer, local airline Israir achieving scheduled carrier status to compete with El Al on the New York route and charter airlines such as HapagFly and Air Madrid flying to Tel Aviv with government financial guarantees. All this has come at a price to El Al, however, which, faced with the rise in competition and a resulting expanding net loss, has repeated criticism of the government's policies and called for "fair competition." El Al gave its blessing to the establishment of the new committee, saying, "For the first time the issue of open-skies is being dealt with in a systematic and professional manner." Some in the industry expressed concern that the new panel was the government's answer to El Al's call. "We see this as a step backward," said one industry professional who asked to remain anonymous. "I fear that the makeup of the committee has been strongly influenced by El Al." Meanwhile, the committee's establishment could not have come at a more trying time for the industry, whose recovery from the war in Lebanon will be under close scrutiny in the coming months. "At the moment the airlines are operating at an over-capacity," said Foreign Airlines Association head Friedman. "So far the chagim [holidays] are not looking bad, but they are not what we had hoped for [before the war]." For some, however, the war made the issue of further opening skies even more pertinent. "Especially now, we need to be more flexible than ever in our aviation policy," the IHA's Gonen said. "There is no need to analyze it now. I don't understand why they set [the committee] up."