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  • Steve Jaffe

Ten New Breakthrough Routes to Israel

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

New air service to Israel from far-flung places continues -- some are pure business routes -- others leisure destinations, and a few surprises.

With a new fleet of 787 Dreamliners replacing aging 747s and 767s, El Al has refreshed its aircraft interiors, upgraded service, and is introducing new routes to North American destinations where it has limited or no direct competition. Chicago O'Hare, a major business destination with a large Jewish population and hub of code-share partner American Airlines, with which El Al can offer connecting flights throughout North America, will be served with three weekly flights operated by 787s starting March 2020. The new route parallels El Al’s recent return to Miami -- another major American hub and massive tourism draw for Israelis with a very large local Jewish presence in South Florida.

What was a surprise was El Al's commencement of weekly service to both Orlando and Las Vegas. The basis for these flights seem to be threefold: 1) as a tactical move to maximize utilization of the fleet; 2) to serve two destinations very popular with Israelis (they can fly on El Al to Los Angeles and return from Las Vegas, or to Miami and return from Orlando and vice versa), as well as the two cities being some the largest convention destinations anywhere.

The San Francisco route is altogether different. Israel has become a major global tech hub, feeding a steady stream of passenger traffic to – and from -- Silicon Valley. While San Jose International Airport is closer to most of the tech giants, San Francisco (SFO), farther up the peninsula, is by far the larger global connecting point for Bay Area traffic. United recognized the potential for this route and launched 787-8 non-stop service three times a week in 2016. The gamble paid off, with United increasing the service to daily. In 2018, the 787s were replaced with larger capacity 777-300ERs.

El Al had every intention to claim its share of this lucrative market. Intending to start its own service with a 787-9 in 2018, the carrier faced delays in airplane availability, finally launching the service in past May 2019. To compete with United's massive domestic feed at its SFO hub, El Al recently concluded a code-share and frequent flyer partnership with Alaska Airlines, greatly bolstering its capability to feed passengers to and from its SFO flights.

On the other side of the globe, air service between Israel and China continues to flourish. Hainan Airlines has opened a new route to Shenzhen, connecting China's burgeoning technology hub with that of Israel's. Hainan switched the route from Guangzhou, which was to be taken over by China Southern, a new entrant to the Israeli market. But that service, originally slated for April 2019, has yet to start.

A much bigger surprise was Sichuan Airline's new service from Chengdu -- the capital and Sichuan province and the sixth largest city. While commercial ties between Israel with Chengdu are not as developed as with the larger coastal cities, it seems that the carrier is targeting connecting passengers. Sichuan Airlines is promoting and introductory offer in which Chengdu-bound travelers can connect for onward flights to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou at no additional cost.

El Al announced an expansion of its East Asian services with the introduction of the first-ever direct air link with Japan. Starting in March 2020, El Al will fly three times a week between Tel Aviv and Tokyo's Narita Airport with 787 equipment. Tourist and business traffic has been steadily increasing with 60,000 passengers flying between the two countries last year. This represents the first expansion of El Al's Asian network in some years. The airline currently serves Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Mumbai.

Two exciting air service developments have unfolded on the African front. One, the long-anticipated start of Rwandair's route to Kigali, which will be operated with 737-800 equipment on with three weekly flights. While Rwanda is a relatively safe central African country with a growing middle class and environmental tourism, ties between the two countries are warm but lack significant economic heft. Rwandair seems to be counting on drawing connecting traffic as it has timed the Kigali arrival to connect with flights to Nairobi, Addis Ababa, and Johannesburg. But the airline must compete against a much larger and well entrenched competitor in the form of Ethiopian Airlines, which can match any city-pair that Rwandair can serve and then some. It would seem that there is a strong political interest on the Rwandan side for serving this route.

Quite unexpected was the recently announced Air Seychelles service between the nation’s capital Mahe and Tel Aviv. The six-hour flight, which will be flown by one of the carrier's new A320 Neos, will operate once a week. Like Rwandair, the flight will be timed to connect to onward services – in this case to Johannesburg, Mumbai and Bangkok. It is expected that the majority of seats will be sold as tour packages, offering a new exotic Indian Ocean resort experience to Israeli travelers, serving up sun, sand, and gaming in a stable country where Israelis can expect to feel welcome.

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