Asian airlines play catch-up in Israeli market
For decades, Israel was terra incognita on the route maps of Asian airlines. Based in a region with historically less-developed commercial and cultural ties than Europe and North America, East Asian airlines were slow to enter the Israeli market. Korean Air pioneered the first service in 1995 operating a nonstop 747-400 between Seoul and Tel Aviv, supported by strong Korean tourism interest in the Holy Land, and by growing bilateral trade. The route was suspended in 1998 due to the Asian financial crisis, and twice subsequently, but was restarted in late 2014.
Today, Korean operates the flight three times a week, alternating seasonally between a 777-200 and an A330-200. Korean flies the same route over the central Asian republics as does El Al on its Beijing and Hong flights, avoiding airspace bans over Iran and neighboring Arab countries. In fact, the airline publicizes this fact on its Hebrew language website in Israel to put Israeli travelers at ease. Below is the Google Translate English version of the webpage and route map.
Hainan Airlines, the largest privately owned Chinese airlines, was launched non-stop service between Beijing and Tel Aviv in April 2016, with three weekly flights using A330-200 equipment. The route has proved sustainable, despite competing against El Al’s own flight which also operating three times a week, and has been upgraded to A330 service. Hainan Airlines’ flights use the same routing as Korean and El Al over the central Asian nations. For northern Asian destinations, the additional flight time required is minimum.
Initial success on the Beijing route quickly induced Hainan to inaugurate service to Tel Aviv from Shanghai Pudong International Airport in September 2017, with three weekly 787 flights. And just seven months later, the airline started its third new route – this time from Guangzhou – the first non-stop flight to Israel from China’s third largest city, with 787-9 services operating three times weekly.
As El Al was learning to adjust to new competition on its Far Eastern network, Cathay Pacific followed through on its long-rumored intention to start Hong Kong – Tel Aviv service in March, 2017, using its brand new A350-900s, competing directly with El Al’s Hong Kong flights.
The latest development was a surprising announcement from Sichuan Airlines of the start of service between Tel Aviv and Chengdu – China’s fourth largest city. The flights, operated with A330-300 equipment, operate twice a week.
Trade and tourism with China – the second largest economy in the world – and Isreal is booming. The number of Chinese tourists to Israel increased 30% in 2017, reaching 113,000. That figure was expected to grow to around 150,000 by 2018. Israel’s commercial and military trade with China is hitting stride. China’s 2016 direct foreign investment in Israel was $16B. Israel’s exports to China are estimated to be around $50B.
The Jerusalem Post predicts that China will eventually surpass the United States as the largest foreign investor in Israel. With ever-growing ties between the two countries, we can expect flight frequencies and destinations to increase over the coming years. In fact, just announced (January 2019), Hainan Airlines will start a fourth route to Tel Aviv – this time from Shenzhen – the commercial juggernaut just across the border from Hong Kong. China Southern will take over the Guangzhou route from Hainan. With it's massive hub in that city, China Southern is well positioned to provide connections throughout China and the entire Far East.
And what about other Asian countries? Israel and the Philippines recently concluded an air service agreement, paving the way for direct flights between the two countries. The government of Israel has reportedly offered financial incentives for Philippine Airlines to serve Tel Aviv. Given the large numbers of Philippine workers in Israel, along with the considerable volume of religious and cultural tourism to Israel from the Philippines, there is reason to believe that commercial flights between the two countries could be viable.
Singapore Airlines has been rumored to be evaluating service to Israel. The two countries have deep and long-standing ties, going back to the early military assistance Israel provided Singapore after the city-state declared independence in 1965. A big challenge that would have to be overcome is overflight rights with Malaysia and Indonesia. The standard approaches and departures at Singapore’s Changi Airport require overflying those two predominantly Moslem countries, which have to date refused overflight permission to Israeli airlines.
When Prime Minister Nentanyahu made a state visit to Singapore in 2017, the El Al 767 carrying him had to make a wide detour by overflying Thailand before heading southeast off the Malay peninsula before turning into the Singapore Straights for a special vectored approach to Changi. The feasibility of such a route on a scheduled basis, aside from the economic viability, is dependent upon whether Singapore air traffic management would allow for regular exceptions to the published standard approaches and departures.