Hail Emirates -- Whither El Al?
The long-awaited and highly anticipated arrival of Emirates in Tel Aviv last Thursday was the crowning aviation achievement of the 2020 Abraham Accords. Yes, Etihad, Gulf Air, and FlyDubai have been plying the Gulf-Israel routes for a couple of years now – major achievements in their own right. But Emirates – having bounced back from the pandemic and regained its status as the world’s biggest international airline – is altogether in another league.
The story of Emirates is well known. In short – its strengths lie in:
A global network that reaches all 6 inhabited continents and can connect almost any two points around the globe with one stop
The power of the Dubai hub to channel this global traffic into endless permutations of flight connections, providing massive feed from all directions
Economies of scale – from purchasing airplanes to ground services, labor contracts, and so on
A great product with consistent standards and delivery
A home base (Dubai) which is a major global business and tourism draw
A government policy that recognizes the strategic criticality of a robust integrated aviation industry and that promotes coordinated growth among airlines, airports, and support services
Where does all this leave El Al? First, it must be acknowledged that the airline is already competing with other global powerhouses – think Turkish, Lufthansa, United, Delta, and American. But with Emirates comes a new juggernaut for connections to all of Asia and Oceania, offering more direct routing than Turkish can provide. So whither El Al? If it can’t slay the dragon, can it at least stay in the game?
Consider the existing, and potential, advantages of El Al.
As the hometown carrier, El Al can provide non-stop services to cities like Beijing, or Hong Kong – eliminating the time and hassle of a connecting flight. Business travelers and a healthy percentage of leisure travelers will pay a premium for that privilege
Security. Out of necessity, El Al provides a level of security not matched by other airlines. Many Israeli travelers chose the carrier for that reason alone
Avoidance of hostile countries. Emirates’ flights to Central and East Asia, as well as to many European destinations, will usually overfly Iran. An unforeseen diversion to an Iranian airport is not high on the list of exotic experiences sought out by Israelis. This is a non-issue on El Al
A large, affluent, and mobile diaspora. Jews around the world affiliate with Israel, creating a strong inbound VFR (visiting friends and relatives) demand. And Israelis are serial travelers, creating strong outbound traffic
Israel is a destination people want to fly to – for business and tourism. It has much to offer the world.
All of Europe is accessible to El Al with narrowbodies, allowing the carrier to compete in markets too small for widebody service. Emirates has largely closed that gap with FlyDubai, but it’s still not as seamless a service as would be offered on a single airline
The big prize for El Al is the still-elusive regional peace agreement that would bring overflight and landing rights throughout the Middle East, enabling Ben Gurion Airport to transform itself from an origin and destination airport to a true hub. El Al has taken baby steps toward that goal, creating connections from Europe and North America to Johannesburg and Mumbai – but that’s a far cry from a true, omni-directional hub. This may sound like a pipe dream. But then again, who would have dreamed two years ago that we would see Emirates flying to Tel Aviv and El Al to Dubai?
Thwaited and highly anticipated arrival of Emirates in Tel Aviv last Thursday was the crowning aviation achievement of the 2020 Abraham Accords. Yes, Etihad, Gulf Air, and FlyDubai have been plying the Gulf-Israel routes for a couple of years now – major achievements in their own right. But Emirates – having bounced back from the pandemic and regained its status as the world’s biggest international airline – is altogether in another league. their fleets and networks to serve their respective home markets in destinations where they can economically compete or that are strategically important to their respective eT
The challenges at El Al are real and pressing. It must find a way to resolve the incessant labor strife. It needs a reliable and stable government (in short supply in Israel these days) to support the concept of a true national aviation policy that respects the strategic value of the flag carrier. And it needs the government to conclude more peace treaties with more neighbors.
It may seem a stretch, but if El Al can effectively leverage its strategic advantages under a favorable political climate, it could stand on its own against the giants and still achieve financial stability as a fit-for-purpose, efficient flag carrier. After all, it was David Ben Gurion himself who said “if you live in Israel and you don’t believe in miracles, you’re not a realist”.