Dubai: Direct flights between UAE and Israel may not start until January 1 as COVID-19 restrictions continue to affect demand, an Israeli government official has said.
“Originally, it was said it was going to start in the first week of October - then we had a lockdown in Israel,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Deputy Mayor of East Jerusalem. “At the moment I'm hearing January 1 as a target date for direct flights.”
When that happens, this will be a gamechanger for UAE’s airlines, who have been hit hard by the pandemic. The deal will lead to a new stream of travellers that could help Dubai and Abu Dhabi partly bounce back from the crisis.
“Israir has expressed interest as well as the low-cost airline here in Dubai – flydubai,” the official said. “Of course, Etihad and Emirates.”
In fact, Etihad went one step ahead and began selling tickets to Israeli trave;lers through Tel Aviv-based TAL Aviation Group in September. It was offering flights to several global destinations from its hub at Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Demand is there
“The cooperation between Etihad Airways and TAL Aviation Group comes in response to an increase in demand for travel between the two countries, and further to the airline’s resumption of services throughout July and August,” the Israeli firm said in a statement on September 1.
Two weeks later, Etihad said it “welcomes the opportunity” to explore operations between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv once a bilateral Air Services Agreement (ASA) is established and regulatory approvals obtained. “The result of a new bilateral ASA will not only lead to cooperation across various industries but to stronger economic ties,” the Abu Dhabi carrier said.
Since Etihad’s announcements, global travel demand has taken a turn for the worse. Initially, it was expected that passenger traffic will show modest improvements by the end of the year. But that’s less likely now as the second wave of the virus sends the aviation industry back into hibernation.
Air travel is likely to see a decline by 68 per cent in December compared to the 63 per cent fall IATA (International Air Transport Association) forecast earlier.
“It's clear that although our data for August showed a further improvement, that more or less stopped early in the month,” IATA’s Brian Pearce, Chief Economist, notes. “We've seen the market reaching an inflection point and the improvements that we saw in summer have more or less stopped at least for the moment.”
Apart from rescuing Middle East’s battered airline industry, the start of commercial flights between UAE and Israel will give a timely boost to tourism.
“We're very excited by the possibilities for our economy; 30 per cent of the economy of Jerusalem is based on tourists,” said Hassan-Nahoum. However, tourist arrivals in the country plunged 93.4 percent year-on-year in August, according to some estimates.
“We were very hard hit this year,” the Deputy Mayor added. But, if the UAE deal “can give 50 tour guides from East Jerusalem work for the next five years. That's a tangible benefit.”