Editorial: Taking off

On Monday, to much fanfare, the inaugural flight landed at the Ilan and Assaf Ramon International Airport, located some 18 km. north of Eilat, in the beautiful Timna Valley.

Despite the excitement of the ceremony, the airport – originally slated to open earlier this year – is not expected to become operational until March 2019. Nonetheless, the inauguration was good news.

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When the 34,000 sq.m. airport opens, it is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Israel’s southernmost resort city. Eilat, on the Red Sea, attracts foreign tourists looking for year-round sunshine, many of them arriving directly to the South on low-cost airlines.

The new Ramon Airport should significantly ease travel for both international and domestic flights and their passengers.

Currently, Eilat is served by a small and aging airport in the city, suitable only for small planes used on domestic flights, as well as the military airport at Ovda, some 60 km. from the Red Sea resort, which can handle larger planes coming from abroad. Tourists arriving at Ovda have to pay for expensive transport options to get to the city – and of course, it also adds to their travel time.

Being significantly closer, visitors will be able to take a 15-minute shuttle service to the hotel district and, as The Jerusalem Post’s Max Schindler noted this week, there are plans for a rail link to the city center.

The terminal is expected to handle some two million passengers a year, rising to 4.2 million by 2030.

This is welcome news indeed for Eilat, a city dependent on the tourism industry. Apart from bringing in more visitors, the airport itself will create more local job opportunities for the city’s residents.

As Schindler pointed out, in a move aimed at encouraging more flights, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Transportation reached an agreement under which Israel will waive aviation fees at the Ramon Airport for three years.

Transportation Minister Israel Katz said at the ceremony: “The goal is to strengthen the city of Eilat, and make Israelis prefer Eilat over other places abroad.”

Once the Ramon Airport is fully operational, the airfield in the city center will be closed, putting an end to the noise pollution stemming from the flights and freeing up valuable land to develop more tourism facilities.

Other benefits of the new airport include providing an alternative to residents of the Negev who will no longer need to travel to Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv for flights.

Similarly, the expected increase in air traffic by European airlines – including Ryanair, WizzAir, easyJet, SAS and others – will probably result in cheaper flights for Israelis to destinations in Europe. Katz is proud of the fact that since Israel and the European Union ratified the Open Skies agreement in June 2013, international travel to and from Israel has significantly taken off.

The new airport – which cost an estimated NIS 1.8 billion – is modern and offers all the necessary facilities that today’s travelers expect. Architects Mann Shinar and Moshe Zur made a particular effort to ensure that the airport blends in with the scenery at the stunning location.

The airport is named for pilot Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, who perished in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in February 2003, and his son, Assaf, who was killed in 2009 at the age of 21 when his F-16 crashed during an IAF training exercise. At the ceremony on Monday, Rona Ramon, the widow and bereaved mother, spoke emotionally of it being “a day when dreams come true.”

While most of the media attention concentrated on the potential commercial benefits of the new airport, one equally important advantage should not be ignored: During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the US Federal Aviation Authority temporarily banned air traffic to Ben-Gurion Airport when rockets launched by Hamas in Gaza were aimed at Tel Aviv and the center of the country. Following American’s lead, several European airlines also briefly suspended flights. With just one airport fully capable of handling international traffic, Israel felt the ban placed the country under siege, even though the Iron Dome protection system was successful in knocking out any rocket before it could cause damage.

The Ramon International Airport, therefore, provides not only a welcome economic boost but also a much-needed alternative to Ben-Gurion in the event of a similar emergency situation. At the ceremony, Rona Ramon said: “Today my spirits are soaring.” We can identify with her sentiments.