After six-year hiatus, Israeli planes to fly to Turkey again

Ankara signs deal removing security requirements that had locked local companies out of the market

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

El Al Aircraft at Ben Gurion airport (Photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash 90)
El Al Aircraft at Ben Gurion airport (Photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash 90)

Israeli airlines will be allowed to to fly to Turkey again, after more than half a decade during which local companies had effectively been locked out of the lucrative market because of Ankara’s security restraints.

The director of Israel’s Civil Aviation Authority, Giora Romm, on Tuesday signed a document with his Turkish counterpart at the end of bilateral talks that took place in Turkey, according to TheMarker business newspaper. Israeli airlines reportedly expect to resume landing in Turkish destinations starting next summer.

Israeli airlines had been unable to fly to any destination in Turkey since 2007 because Turkish authorities refused to cooperate with Israel’s special security requirements. With Tuesday’s agreements, a way has been found to sort out the disagreements, effectively enabling Israeli airlines to compete for the Tel Aviv-Istanbul and other lucrative routes, the paper reported.

The CEO of Israeli charter Arkia, Gadi Tepper, said his company hoped to be able to operate flights to Turkey already during the upcoming spring/summer season, “without limitation on the hours of operation,” according to TheMarker. “The airline is grateful to the Civil Aviation Authority’s director and his team for the efforts they invested in negotiating with the aviation authorities in Turkey.” Israir CEO Uri Sirkis spoke of a “breakthrough.”

El Al CEO Elyezer Shkedy on Wednesday congratulated Romm for his efforts to fight for Israeli airlines but cautioned that the last word might not have been spoken on the issue.

“El Al is expecting to receive an official confirmation from the state authorities before it will be able to operate flights. As of today, this hasn’t been received,” he said in a statement.

Air traffic between Israel and Turkey has soared by over 150 percent since the 2010 Gaza flotilla episode sent bilateral ties hurtling into the abyss. But as of today only Turkey is benefiting from the increase: The total number of Turkish airline flights out of Ben Gurion Airport each week has reached a staggering 112. The current total number of Israeli airline flights on the route: zero.

As first reported by The Times of Israel, outgoing El Al CEO Elyezer Shkedy on October 22 sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he demanded Israel preclude Turkish airlines from flying to Israel as long as Ankara prevents Israeli airlines from competing, or at least halt the expansion of Turkish companies.

“What’s happening now between Israel and Turkey is unacceptable,” Shkedy, who recently announced his resignation, told The Times of Israel an interview last month. “This is something I can’t understand, honestly. I can’t understand how the leaders of the State of Israel allow this situation to continue.”

El Al CEO Elyezer Shkedy (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
El Al CEO Elyezer Shkedy (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Shkedy refused to estimate how much the crisis was costing El Al, but described it as a financial “disaster” that could bring down the company. The government in Jerusalem would surely not want to see “Israeli aviation crash because of this,” he added, but this scenario is “a real possibility.”

At present, Turkish Airlines operates more flights out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport than any other airline except for El Al. The Turkish state-owned company currently operates no fewer than 53 weekly flights from Tel Aviv to Istanbul. Pegasus Airlines and other Turkish charter companies together offer an additional 59 weekly flights connecting the two countries, bringing the total number of Turkish flights out of Ben Gurion to a staggering 112. This constitutes a 166% increase since 2010, when the total weekly number of Turkish airline flights from Tel Aviv stood at 42.

A Turkish Airlines flight (photo credit: CC BY-SA BriYYZ, Flickr)
A Turkish Airlines flight (photo credit: CC BY-SA BriYYZ/Flickr/File)

On paper, the current situation — Turkish airlines expanding in Israel while Israeli companies were locked out of the market — had nothing to do with the tense diplomatic atmosphere between Jerusalem and Ankara but is based on Israel’s tight security requirements.

Until 2007, Israeli companies operated about 30 weekly flights to and from Turkey. But starting that year, Turkish authorities ceased accommodating Israel’s security requirements, thus preventing Israeli companies from landing in Turkey. Israel’s security agencies have higher security requirements than other countries’ regarding the operation of flights. Officials in Jerusalem refuse to specify Israel’s security demands on record, but in private conversations say accommodations could certainly have been found if there was a desire to do so, and squarely blame Turkish authorities for deliberately making the Israelis’ lives more difficult.

“Everywhere we fly to — China, India, Ukraine, France, Belgium, England — everywhere we found a solution,” El Al’s deputy director for international affairs, Stanley Morais, told The Times of Israel in November. “There are all these countries that have all these requirements and demands. How come in Turkey we can’t find a solution? It doesn’t make sense.”

Other countries, most recently Russia, have also sometimes objected to Israel’s special security procedures, but a crisis was averted at the last minute with Moscow when Jerusalem threatened to bar Russian planes from landing in Israel, according to Shkedy. “We told them that until they let us fly there, you won’t be able to fly here to Israel,” he said. “They found a solution [on the security arrangements]. A solution that both Russia and Israel were satisfied with.”

Over the weekend, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan said years of diplomatic tension between Israel and Turkey could be resolved through continued talks. “Relations with Israel are important to Turkey,” Babacan said, “and I hope they can return to where they were [before the Mavi Marmara incident]. We can restore relations, which have existed for many years.”

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