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Israel’s national carrier, El Al, has taken the unusual step of paring back its summer schedule, because of the lack of security personnel.
The problem is there are too few security agents to go around at airports served by Israeli airlines outside Israel, and without enough agents on the ground, some flights won’t be taking off. Sun d’Or, an El Al charter subsidiary, has reportedly already canceled summer flights between Tel Aviv and Ibiza and Corsica. Some flights from Haifa to Pafos in Cyprus on a different Israeli airline have been cancelled as well.
Excellent and thorough security is one of El Al’s trademarks. Owing to Israel’s unique security situation, apart from the security agents working at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport (TLV) itself there are more than 950 Israeli security agents stationed at airports outside Israel’s borders. But as Israelis travel overseas more and more, the number of security agents hasn’t kept pace. That in part prompted El Al’s outgoing CEO, David Maimon, to urge Israel’s Foreign Ministry to take action—which could be crucial because in Israel it’s the government that not only trains airport screeners but also funds their placement abroad.
El Al actually manages the security of the other Israeli airlines operating overseas flights, namely Israir and Arkia. Maimon wrote to the ministry that “Due to the limitations, El Al’s security division will not be able to provide aviation security services for all expected flights of Israeli airlines…and cannot grant approval to airlines for the summer 2018 schedule, which begins in March.”
All told Israeli airlines are short about 200 agents for the overseas airports concerned, and timing is critical. Even if the Foreign Ministry comes up with the funding this month, it could take at least a month to hire and deploy agents, and it may already be too late. Security has to be in place before airlines can guarantee that they can actually service the routes. So more cancellations could be in store in the weeks to come.
The good news is that the long-haul flights El Al’s US customers are most likely to be booking — like the Newark to Tel Aviv flight on the new 787 Dreamliner we recently reviewed — are unaffected.
The cancellations could still drive up ticket prices on low-cost carriers like WOW Air as Israelis look to alternatives if flights that they already booked or were planning to book on Israeli airlines are scrapped. Given the long flying times from the United States to Israel, many travelers prefer to make a European stopover en route to Tel Aviv. Airlines like WOW (which we also reviewed recently) and Aegean are increasingly promoting their Tel Aviv routes, but now some of those flights could get more crowded, and possibly pricier.
As Israeli travel abroad has boomed — Ben Gurion reports a surge of more than 16% in passengers flying into and out of the airport over the last year or so — airlines like Arkia which were historically known for making cheap domestic runs between Tel Aviv and the Red Sea resort of Eilat have expanded their routes, nipping at El Al’s heels. The airline is struggling financially and some sources tell TPG that the much touted recent addition of the 787 Dreamliner to the fleet is no antidote to the competitive market blues: at the time Maimon announced his resignation in November 2017, El Al’s stock price had tumbled 52% from what it was a year prior. And if El Al does not manage to achieve 30% market share in Israel this year (as is being widely reported in Israeli media) the discounted fees it typically gets from the Israel Airports Authority may not be forthcoming.
In the meantime, Israeli business site Globes reports that Nir Dagan, the CEO of Arkia Airlines, has complained to the Israeli Finance Ministry that “the time has come to remove from El Al the monopoly on security services… in the light of El Al’s management failure and the discriminatory practices it has used against its competitors for years.” That’s going to be a problem for El Al’s incoming CEO, Gonen Usishkin, to face when he takes up the reins later in February.
While both El Al and Arkia declined to comment for this story, a spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Emanuel Nachshon, said “we are working on a solution” to the security agents issue, “and we believe the problem will be solved.”
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