Ben Gurion Airport is nearing capacity

As Ben-Gurion draws ever nearer to capacity, Israel is no closer to laying the cornerstone for a new international airport.

ken lazipor 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ken lazipor 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sixteen million is the magic number. That’s the number everybody is working toward and that’s the number many fear. When 16,000,000 passengers fly into Israel in a year, Ben-Gurion International Airport will have reached its full capacity. While it is estimated that it will take at least five years for the benchmark to be reached, the battle over where to build a new international airport is already in the works.
Perhaps surprisingly, the battle isn’t between two cities, both bidding for the opportunity to host an international airport with all the promised development and employment opportunities that go with it. The battle is between citizens on one side and the military on the other, neither wanting the new airport to land in their back yard.
There are currently four likely candidates for the location of the new airport, one in the North, two in the South and a third possibility of constructing a man-made island off the coast of Tel Aviv. Residents of the North reject the notion of an international airport because of environmental and quality of life considerations, the Ministry of Defense rejects the southern option because of security concerns, while the off-shore island option carries astronomical costs.
On February 1, 2009, the government called on then-transportation minister Shaul Mofaz to form a steering committee toward making a decision on which option to choose within six months. The announcement was the green light for lobby and advocacy work to start in earnest, with both sides treating the billion shekel project like a hot potato.
The fact that an additional international airport is needed to support Ben-Gurion has been known for a long time, but in Israel things often tend to be left for the last minute. Such is the case with the location of what is formally known as “The complementary airport to Ben-Gurion International,” but better known under the designation “NATBAG 2.”
BEN-GURION Airport was originally established by the British Mandate authorities in 1934 as part of a broad plan to lay down airports in Mandate-era Palestine. In 1935 work began on the infrastructure and in April 1937, four concrete runways were completed, each 800m long and 100m wide, enabling heavy aircrafts to land and take off. Back then Lod Airport, or as it was known at the time, Lydda Airport, served as a transit point for KLM, linking Western Europe with the Far East and for British Imperial Airways, on the London to Bombay route.
During the Second World War, air force squadrons from Australia, Britain and the United States started using European airports, and Lod was among the airports used for military purposes. Civilian activities of the airport were reduced and Lod served as a major base for military air transport and aircraft ferry operations between military bases in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
In April 1948, the British left the airport facilities, and aviation activities ceased almost completely. The Jewish workers left the airport together with the British, and only local Arab forces and soldiers of the Jordanian Legion remained within the boundaries of the airport.
Israel’s civilian aviation activities temporarily moved to a small airfield near Ein Shemer, but within a short period of time Lod Airport was taken over by IDF units in “Operation Dani” on July 10, 1948. The airport was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transportation, and preparations were made for the renewal of aviation activities.
The airport was officially re-opened on November 24, 1948, with the landing of a Czech airliner on the Prague-Rome-Lod route. Roughly 40,000 passengers passed though Lod Airport during the first year of independence.
Ben-Gurion has come a long way since then. Today over 10 million passengers pass through the airport every year. The airport reached its highest point in terms of passenger traffic in 2008 when more than 11.5 million passengers used the airport, on roughly 95,000 domestic and international flights.
THE SEARCH for a new international airport goes back nearly 40 years. In 1972, the National Planning Committee first instructed the Ministry of Transportation to draw up a comprehensive plan for Israel’s civilian aviation planning. After more than two and a half decades, in 2000, the Transportation Ministry finally published Tama 15, the national master plan for airports.
Tama 15 didn’t only offer alternatives to a new international airport; it outlined all of Israel’s civilian airports. The plan includes 22 sites that range from mighty runways that can accommodate Boeing 747s to gravel airstrips for crop dusters and Ultra-Light gliders.
The plan divides Israel’s civilian airports into four groups: Group number 1 is for major international airports and includes only Ben-Gurion; Group number 2 is for domestic airports that can also receive international charter flights, like the one in Eilat; Group 3 is for domestic flights only, like Sde Dov in Tel Aviv; and Group 4 is for recreational or agricultural aircrafts. The division is based among other things on the length of the runways.
Based on Tama 15, planning officials created Tama 15 (1) to provide advanced planning for a complementary airport for Ben-Gurion. Tama 15 (1) reduced the number of possible alternatives from 22 down to four.
The four options that Tama 15 (1) proposed were the same ones that are currently on the table, save for one difference. The original plan called for the airport in the North to be situated in Haifa, next to the seaport, while the northern option now being debated is in the Jezreel Valley near Megiddo. The other three are Nevatim, located between Beersheba and Arad, a site called Ziklag 2, located near Sderot and Netivot and the aforementioned man-made island off the Mediterranean coast, between Tel Aviv and Netanya.
Both the Nevatim and Netivot options pose difficulties because of their proximity to air force bases and air force flight routes. The proposed site at Nevatim, if chosen, would in fact share the runway with an existing air force facility. The plan was approved by the National Planning Committee, but failed to gain the approval of the government. According to sources in the Civil Aviation Authority, the plan failed because of the resistance of the military to the two southern options.
In 2007, Mofaz set up a special committee, led by retired general and former Air Force commander Herzl Bodinger, to make recommendations on where to situate the new international airport and to propose civilian aviation policies for the next 50 years.
After a year of deliberations, the committee failed to reach any definite conclusions. The disagreements between the members were too acute. The committee members never signed the report and the end result was a list of nineteen personal recommendations by Bodinger himself.
What the report did succeed in doing was replacing the Haifa option with the Megiddo location, a proposal that sat well with Mofaz, who didn’t want the Haifa airfield to disturb plans for port expansion. In the final days of the Olmert administration Mofaz announced that he was adopting Bodinger’s recommendations and was choosing Megiddo as the alternative to Ben-Gurion.
Mofaz’s announcement spread shockwaves through the region. The residents of the area were stunned to find out that their rural and peaceful valley would be turned into a commercial and industrial hub with the introduction of an international airport. They were quick to express their disapproval.
The residents formed a grassroots organization to battle the decision, and for the last two years have been using every resource at their disposal to have it changed. The group accused the Olmert government of trying to garner headlines at the end of the term and failing to seriously look into the issue.
“The organization started with a handful of concerned citizens, but slowly grew in scope. With time we were joined by the local municipalities and environmental organizations, who saw the reason in our objections and now we have six cabinet ministers advocating for our cause,” said Yael Bar Nir, one of the group’s activists.
In a formal position paper sent to the relevant government ministries and to the press, the group outlined its objections to having the airport built in the Jezreel Valley and pointed out the advantages of situating the airport in one of the alternative locations examined by the Bodinger committee.
“The proposal is absurd because it doesn’t serve Israel’s national interest of sustainable development that will allow for the continued existence of open spaces, holding on to agricultural land reserves, developing rustic tourism, and preserving ecologically and environmentally sensitive regions,” read the paper. “The decision to recommend Megiddo as a preferred alternative is at complete odds with the wishes of the residents, both the longtime residents who worked the land and make a living from agriculture and rural tourism, and the new residents who came in order to improve their lives in the quiet and pastoral region.”
“The establishing of an international airport in the region will cut short decades of hard work and transform the valley into a huge industrial zone with massive logistical systems, mega parking lots, gas stations, storage facilities, garages and loading facilities…” the paper continued. “Those of us who oppose the plan don’t see progress and development as a threat in itself, but an airport doesn’t provide an appropriate alternative to creating jobs for the residents of the region…. We will not allow one of the strategic open spaces of the country to become real estate for greedy and unconscientious developers who have been eyeing the valley for years.”
An environmental report compiled by the group numbered a long list of ecological hazards that would arise from the construction of a big airport in the region. The report found that the airport would kill off large amounts of wildlife including fish, birds and mammals that make their home in the valley. The airport would also disrupt the migration patterns of birds that spend time in the valley in their annual migrations. The report warned of negative effects on the water system, saying the airport would pollute the Kishon River, a tributary that has just recently undergone rehabilitation. And the findings also identified issues of noise and air pollution that would be caused by the airport.
The organization has made it a community project to battle the decision, and has even enlisted local youth to take a stance against the move. On Tu Bishvat, they arranged for the children of the region to take part in a tree-planting project to express the permanence of the natural eco-system, and turned the event into a protest rally with the children and youth creating banners expressing their dedication to the valley and refusal to have the airport infringe on their open spaces.
On the political level, critics have enlisted the support of key cabinet ministers. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon has expressed his support for the valley, as did National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau and Welfare Minister Yitzhak Herzog.
Perhaps the most vocal supporter of the group is Vice-Premier and Negev and Galilee Minister Silvan Shalom, who has additional reasons to prefer the southern options over the Megiddo plan.
IN AN interview with Metro, Shalom spoke about his desire to see the new international airport go up in the Negev.
“Israel needs an additional international airport as soon as possible. While the building of such an international airport at Megiddo has been greeted with major opposition by local residents, who fear the damage to the environment, the Negev has been begging for a project of this size since Israel decided to begin planning for a second international airport,” said Shalom.
“The airport in the Negev is already there. It must now be adapted and transformed into an international airport with a terminal that will provide hundreds of thousands of new jobs, will develop the regional economy and expose hundreds of thousands of tourists to the south,” he continued. “The Nevatim option would be a change-generating project for the Negev. It would strengthen the existing towns and villages and help achieve the target of 300,000 new residents in the region over the next decade.”
Shalom said that the only thing preventing the Nevatim option from taking place was the resistance of the air force.
“The air force wants the space for itself, but I spoke to [former Chief of General Staff, Lt.- Gen.] Dan Halutz and he said there was no problem in turning it into a civilian airfield,” he said.
Other voices calling for the establishment of the airport in the Negev came from local municipal leaders. Arad Mayor Gideon Bar Lev said, “Constructing a second airport in Nevatim, near Arad, is an important element in the development of the Negev and the Beersheba metropolis as a major center of expanding economic activity. Constructing an airport in Nevatim will increase demands for tourism and labor, and will be an essential factor in the development of the South.”
“For geographic and demographic reasons, and because the infrastructure and accompanying services are already in place, it’s wise to determine Nevatim as the location of the new international airport,” he concluded.
Whereas the positions for and against the Negev and Megiddo options are clear, little has been said of the third possibility, the artificial island off the coast. Perhaps because there is no local population, the plan has not received the public relations blitz of the others, but sources in the Civil Aviation Authority branch of the Ministry of Transportation said the possibility is still a viable option.
“The problem with any inland option is that plans for an airport will necessarily affect the surrounding area. I’m not just talking about the direct effects of the airport on the immediate surroundings. An airport of this magnitude has ramifications on a huge scale,” said Civil Aviation Authority Director Motti Shmueli.
Shmueli said that the island option was being considered separately from the others because of the complexity and expense that it presents.
“An off-shore option certainly has its advantages. It would enable nighttime flights. It would have very little effect on the population in terms of noise and air pollution. It would have far fewer flight restrictions and it would be easier to secure,” said Shmueli. “The problem is that it is extremely expensive and would present an unprecedented construction challenge.”
“The idea is not to dry up the sea to expand the coast, but to actually bring in material to build up an island,” he explained. “No one has yet to examine closely the technical aspects of what this will require.”
Examples of airports on man-made islands show that the advantages Shmueli talked about were not always justified. At $20 billion, Japan’s Kansai International Airport in the Osaka Bay is the world’s most expensive civil works project. The airport functions well now, but it is slowly sinking into the ground under its own weight. The Hong Kong International Airport, also constructed on an artificial island, has so far fared better, as has the Macau International Airport.
Shmueli said that for all of the talk, there was still no firm decision on where the airport will be.
“We are concerned with having all the plans in place and to be ready for any option. Ironically, the statutory work takes longer than the actual construction work. In any case it will be between five and seven years from when the decision is reached until the point where the new airport is operational, depending on which option is chosen,” said Shmueli.
“We’re in a rush because we don’t want the air traffic to be stuck, butin the end we’ll present all the plans to the government and it will beup to the ministers to decide. I think it’s important to look at theissue from the national perspective over the narrow interests of onegroup or one area,” said Shmueli.
Asked about the military’s resistance to the southern options, the IDFspokesman’s office said, “Because the fieldwork on the complementaryinternational airport has yet to be completed, the IDF has yet todetermine a position on the issue.”
The Defense Ministry spokesman said that it was premature to talk aboutthe military’s resistance to building an additional internationalairport in Nevatim simply because the issue has not been presented toit yet.
“As far as I know, the government hasn’t made a decision on the issue,and until it does this whole issue is nothing more than slogans anddeclarations,” he said. “In the meantime, I don’t see Ben-Gurion[International Airport] crumbling under the pressure, and even if itwas, there are plenty of alternatives on the table.”
The spokesman said that in principle it is possible for a militaryairport to cooperate with a civilian airport, and gave the Uvda Airportas an example of successful coexistence. He also said that in times ofemergency, some military airfields are equipped to receive civilianflights.
“If the center of Israel comes under attack, no international airlinewill agree to land in Ben-Gurion. For that purpose, some of our basesin more remote areas can serve as substitutes for civilian needs,” saidthe spokesman.