Months after deal, Israeli airlines still not flying to Turkey

Nothing has changed on the ground, fumes El Al’s Eliezer Shkedy; Transportation Ministry blames security requirements, says flights will resume this summer

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

El Al jets parked on the tarmac of Ben Gurion International Airport. (Flash90)
El Al jets parked on the tarmac of Ben Gurion International Airport. (Flash90)

Three months after the Civil Aviation Authority announced that Israeli airlines would be able to fly to Turkey again — after nearly half a decade during which they were not allowed to take off or land in that country — local carriers are still effectively locked out of the lucrative market. Meanwhile, Turkish Airlines continues to grow, consolidating its position as the second-largest airline operating in Israel.

“This is the great illusion, which the head of the Civil Aviation Authority was able to create; to my regret, there is absolutely no change,” El Al CEO Eliezer Shkedy fumed this week in an interview with The Times of Israel. “We asked to be able to fly to Turkey starting at the beginning of March, to Istanbul and other places across Turkey… We can’t fly to Turkey and the Turks continue to operate tens of flights per week.

“On the ground, what is happening is this: All Israeli companies cannot operate one single flight to Turkey, or from Turkey.”

In mid-December 2013, the director of Israel’s Civil Aviation Authority, Giora Romm, signed a document with his Turkish counterpart at the end of bilateral talks that took place in Turkey. As a result of the agreement, Israeli airlines were expected to resume landing in Turkish destinations starting next summer, local media reported at the time.

A spokesman for the Transportation Ministry, which oversees the Civil Aviation Authority, told The Times of Israel that Israeli companies are currently not flying to Turkey because of security requirements imposed by the Israeli authorities. The ministry estimates that Israeli airlines will be able to resume flying to and from Turkey “during the coming summer,” the spokesman, Avner Ovadia, added.

Israeli airlines have been unable to fly to any destination in Turkey since 2007, because Turkish authorities refused to cooperate with Israel’s special security requirements. With the signing of the December treaty, it was believed that 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 starting this spring.

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

But in fact, Israeli companies are still unable to fly to and from Turkey, and it is unclear when this status quo is going to change, Shkedy said.

“Nothing has been sorted out. Despite [Romm’s] promises, nothing has changed,” said Shkedy, who is stepping down from his position at El Al on March 19 (he will be replaced by David Maimon). “I don’t know what Giora Romm signed or what he didn’t sign. But nothing has changed on the ground, and they explain that is something to do with security.”

Shkedy, a former commander of the Israeli Air Force, called upon Romm to apologize for “misleading the public” about having solved the problem, when in fact Israeli airlines are still not able to fly to or from Turkey. “The minimum is that Romm apologizes to the public. He should say that ‘I told you that you can fly to Turkey, but in reality you can’t.’”

Ovadia, the Transportation Ministry spokesman, did not respond when asked about these allegations. He merely said that the agreement Romm signed in Turkey “will be implemented contingent upon an agreed-upon framework regarding security arrangements for Israeli aviation in Turkey.”

Giora Romm, the director of the Civil Aviation Authority. October 27, 2013. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Giora Romm, the director of the Civil Aviation Authority, October 27, 2013. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Air traffic between the two countries 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 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.

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. This constitutes a 166% increase since 2010, when the total weekly number of Turkish 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)

In 2013, Turkish Airlines transported the second-largest number of passengers to and from Ben Gurion, trailing only El Al. While Israel’s leading airline, whose world hub is in Tel Aviv, flew 4,287,689 passengers last year (an increase of 4.7 percent), Turkish Airlines welcomed 582,835 passengers — nearly 60 percent more than in 2012. (The third-biggest airline operating in Israel is Arkia, with 505,882 passengers.)

In January 2014, Turkish serviced some 54,000 passengers, a jump of 77 percent compared with the same month in the previous year.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Shkedy reiterated his call to the Israeli government to act in order to allow Israel to compete on the lucrative route, and to prevent Turkish companies from continuing to grow while local airlines are locked out of the market.

“I don’t understand,” he said, “how a country that respects itself doesn’t stand tall and insist on the minimum requirement: If the Turks can fly here, I can fly there. What’s so complicated about that?”

Asked how he feels about Turkish becoming the second-largest airline operating out of Ben Gurion, Shkedy replied: “How do you want me to compete with them when I can’t fly to Turkey? It’s like a soccer match where one team is allowed to score goals freely, and the other team is not even allowed to enter the field. If I’m not on the field, how can I keep up with them? The minimum is that I’m allowed on the field.”

Turkish is “undoubtedly taking advantage of the current situation,” he continued. “They have tens of flights per week to Israel, and I cannot fly; that creates a problem for the future when we start to compete. Because I start at zero. It’s like they already scored 17 goals, and now they tell me, go and play. How is this possible?”

On paper, the situation has nothing to do with the tense diplomatic atmosphere between Jerusalem and Ankara, but rather with Israel’s tight security requirements.

Until 2007, Israeli companies operated about 30 weekly flights to and from Turkey. But starting that year, Turkish authorities stopped accommodating Israel’s security requirements, preventing Israeli companies from landing in Turkey. Israel’s security agencies have stricter security requirements than other countries. 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 Israeli companies’ lives more difficult.

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