The tiny nation with a rapidly growing airline route map

Dec 15, 2020

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Around the world, the pandemic has caused most air traffic to come to an abrupt halt.

When the coronavirus began spreading rapidly in March and April, some airlines completely stopped operating, while others pulled back from secondary markets, even leaving some cities with no commercial service.

One tiny country, however, is seeing a reversal in fortune. Israel, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and its Arab neighbors, is in the midst of a geopolitical transformation.

While Israel’s aviation market remains especially hard hit by the COVID crisis, there have been some surprising signs of hope that have emerged on the geopolitical front.

Despite the pandemic, Israel has signed peace treaties with four countries in the region since August, opening up previously uncharted territories for airlines to serve.

For Israeli aviation, and its flag carrier El Al, these normalization deals are a welcome development during what’s easily the worst crisis to hit worldwide aviation in decades and one that’s delivered repeated bad news to most carriers in 2020.

“Establishing peace with our neighbors allows us to perform better than we used to, thanks to a host of new markets that will evolve as we recover from the pandemic,” Michael Strassburger, El Al’s chief commercial officer, told TPG in an exclusive interview.

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It begins with Dubai

Dubai at sunrise (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

It all started in mid-August with news of a landmark deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to establish diplomatic relations. Since the announcement, politicians and executives have inked business deals and trade treaties, and cultural exchanges have been set up.

But nowhere is the appetite for exploration more apparent than in the explosive growth on the air corridors between the two countries.

There are 390 flights scheduled between Tel Aviv and Dubai for January 2021, making it the busiest international route from Israel, according to schedule data published by Cirium. (This figure doesn’t include charter flights, of which there are at least two scheduled in each direction per day.)

On Sunday, El Al started commercial flights between the two countries, in a historic move that Strassburger dubbed as “very exciting since it holds so many opportunities for so many people, as well as our company.”

For now, the growth has been limited to the Gulf city of Dubai. That’s because the hub is open to tourists who present a negative COVID test taken within 96 hours of departure.

As for flights to Abu Dhabi, they’re coming, promised Strassburger, who cited the strict 14-day quarantine as a big deterrent for tourists looking to explore the UAE capital.

Related: What it was like flying El Al’s Dubai inaugural 

Other countries quickly followed suit

Dubai is just the first of the rapidly growing number of dots on the route map connecting Tel Aviv.

In September, Israel normalized relations with Bahrain, and one month later announced a similar move with Sudan. While demand for flights to Manama and Khartoum isn’t yet clear, according to Strassburger, the airline and its competitors plan to begin flights as soon as commercially feasible.

As for the significance of opening these new air markets, Elad Strohmayer, spokesperson and diplomat for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, told TPG “it’s about the budding people-to-people relations, as well as expanding tourism, trade and commerce between countries, which will ultimately enhance the interpersonal connections.”

It’s not just about the new routes, though. Regional carriers are also beginning to explore several trade opportunities. El Al has already signed a memorandum of understanding with both Etihad and Gulf Air, “a historic move for all parties involved,” said Strassburger. Flyers can expect reciprocal frequent flyer agreements and cross-airline perks, while the carriers will work to coordinate schedules and offer improved connectivity.

Related: Dubai and Abu Dhabi are open for travelers. Should you go?

Morocco is poised to outperform Dubai

While Dubai might be the busiest market from Israel at the outset of 2021, don’t expect it to hold that title for long, especially once pandemic-era restrictions ease and flights to traditional destinations pick up.

However, the ranking may not revert to the 2019 pecking order, when flights to Moscow and Istanbul were two of the top routes from Tel Aviv, according to Cirium data.

That’s because, on Dec. 10, Israel and Morocco agreed to normalize ties. That’s huge for El Al and its competitors, as “Casablanca is probably the largest unserved market from Tel Aviv, roughly in line with Atlanta and Philadelphia from the U.S.,” said Strassburger.

El Al is excited about flying to Morocco (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

With the news so hot off the presses, no single airline has yet unveiled a schedule for flights between the two countries. But Strassburger has high hopes, especially for Israeli citizens looking to travel to the North African nation. “For many Israelis, Morocco is historical. Every Israeli I know that went to Morocco said it’s a beautiful destination and a must-see tour,” he said.

Related: Morocco is open again for travelers from 60+ countries

It’s not all rosy, though

While the future looks promising for Israeli aviation, there are many turbulent times ahead.

For one, take a look at the coronavirus-related downturn in passenger traffic at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. In November, international traffic dropped 92% year-over-year. That number will improve slightly by December — to down only 85% — with the change overwhelmingly tied to the rapid expansion on the Dubai routes. (Most other top destinations from Israel, including the U.S., Europe and Southeast Asia, remain off-limits to foreigners.)

Additionally, El Al and its competitors are flooding the market with new routes now, but they’re unsure if the short-term successes will become long-term revenue drivers. For instance, several airlines just recently flooded the market to the Seychelles, since it’s open to Israeli tourists sans quarantine upon return to the state. But, will that last?

Strassburger cautioned that “we really don’t yet know the size of the market to predict accurate demand. These are completely new markets, not just for El Al, but for everyone. It’s like starting from scratch without any data.”

Plus, come the summer, when the temperatures in the Dubai desert exceed 100 degrees, tourism demand to Dubai typically falls off a cliff. “There’s no chance this level of demand can sustain itself come summer,” he said. Hopefully, “some of the business opportunities remain over the summer, but the leisure volume … will be drastically reduced.”

And then, there’s the issue of visas. While normalization makes for splashy headlines, the actual process of establishing ties is much more nuanced. One of Strassburger’s concerns is the visa process, which has already caused some Israelis to be held up in Dubai before intervention from the foreign ministry.

These issues notwithstanding, the Middle East shake-up is big news for Israel, UAE, Morocco and Sudan —and the airlines that fly from those countries.

“We are thinking and hoping for many other opportunities throughout the region that will open for our company and for the competitors,” Strassburger concluded.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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