RAMON AIRPORT, southern Israel — Israel inaugurated a new international airport Monday in its desert south, meant to boost tourism to the nearby Red Sea and serve as an emergency alternative to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport in times of conflict. The Ilan & Asaf Ramon Airport airport is named for Israel’s first astronaut, and for his F-16 pilot son.
“The airport will be a focal point of activity, with domestic and international flights. It will give us further strategic capabilities in times of normal activity and when needed, in times of emergency,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the opening ceremony.
“It will give Israel another civilian airfield so that aviation routes will not be harmed,” the prime minister added.
The facility is the first airport built from scratch in Israel since the foundation of the state and is due to welcome scheduled international flights in March. Initially Ramon Airport will handle only domestic flights, operated by Israeli carriers Arkia and Israir.
The $500 million facility is located alongside the main highway leading north from the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, about 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of the city and of the adjacent Jordanian port of Aqaba.
The single-runway airport is named after Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut who was killed in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003, and his son, Asaf, an Israel Air Force F-16 pilot who died in a training accident in 2009.
The 3,600 meter-long (11,800 feet) runway can accommodate large airliners that can take off for long-haul flights. The airport has parking spaces for 60 aircraft, enough for all the aircraft belonging to Israel’s civilian carriers, if needed.
By comparison, the longest of Ben Gurion Airport’s three runways is just over 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) but the other two are shorter than Ramon’s.
The airport will replace Eilat’s current airport — used almost exclusively for domestic flights — and the basic airport at Ovda, 60 kilometers north of the city, which receives international traffic, mainly of holidaymakers from Europe. Ovda, which mainly serves as a military airfield, is nestled deep in the Arava desert, far from main transportation routes.
Eilat is expecting to see a boost in tourism. Initially, Ramon will welcome about 2 million passengers a year with plans to expand to 4.5 million.
Currently, about 1.4 million Israelis visit Eilat annually, and some 300,000 foreign tourists fly in, mainly from Europe.
Low-cost and charter airlines currently flying to Ovda will move to Ramon. They include Ryanair, Wizz Air, easyJet, SAS, Finnair and Ural Airlines.
Construction costs for the new airport have been put at NIS 1.7 billion ($455 million). Work began in 2013 but original specifications for the project were revised to allow for upgrades.
The Israel Airports Authority has said that the plans for the Ramon project were revised in light of lessons learned during the 2014 Gaza war, to ensure it could serve as an alternative in times of conflict.
“In an emergency, not only will Israel’s entire passenger air fleet be able to land and park there, but also additional aircraft,” the IAA says.
After a rocket fired by Hamas terrorists in Gaza hit near the perimeter of Ben Gurion Airport in 2014, international carriers suspended flights.
Media in neighboring Jordan has complained that aircraft landing at Ramon, which is situated very close to the border to the east, could invade its airspace. The Hashemite Kingdom’s own Aqaba airport, which sees a low amount of air traffic, lies a few kilometers to the south-east.
Hebrew-language media reports have said that a 26-meter (85 foot) high, 4.5-kilometer (2.8 mile) long “smart” anti-missile fence has been installed to help protect Ramon, which is adjacent to the border with Jordan.
The IAA refused to comment on those reports.
Tourism brings in significant revenue for Israel, accounting for some $5.8 billion in 2017 and the same amount the following year.
In 2018, incoming tourism broke all records, with 4.12 million tourist entries, the Tourism Ministry said.
The United States, Russia, France, Germany and Britain accounted for most of the visitors.