Rattled by Rockets, Israel Plans Alternate Airport

YERUSHALAYIM (Reuters) -

An airport planned for Israel’s southern desert is being billed as a wartime alternative to Tel Aviv, which was briefly shunned by most foreign carriers in July because of Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza.

The targeting of Israel’s main Ben Gurion airport was a blow to its tourism industry and to the hi-tech hub’s aim of proving itself capable of carrying on business as usual even amid conflict .

The new airport, named after Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, is due to open in 2016 as part of an accelerated construction plan.

Israel’s Transportation Ministry has said the seven-week Gaza war underlined the importance of Ramon Airport “as an emergency, full-scale alternate airport and the need to complete its establishment as quickly as possible.”

Re-routing planes at short notice is a familiar peacetime process in civil aviation. Yet some experts question whether Israel can manage that seamlessly given that Ben Gurion’s normal operating volume of up to 90,000 passengers a day is seven times greater than that anticipated for Ramon airport.

Justin Bronk of London’s Royal United Services Institute noted that Ramon’s sole runway would be used for takeoff and landing, limiting capacity. Ben Gurion has three runways.

Located 12 miles from Eilat, Ramon is meant mainly to replace the Red Sea resort’s small municipal airport, where planes are potentially at risk from short-range rockets and missiles fired by terrorists groups in next-door Egypt.

At about 120 miles from Gaza and 230 miles from Lebanon, Ramon would also be out of the effective range of almost all of the rockets wielded by Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Ramon will be three to four hours’ drive from Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim. Train connections are years from completion. Allaying travelers’ reluctance to land so far from central Israel “might depend on how quickly a credible ground transport infrastructure could be put in place,” said Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Ofer Lefler, spokesman for the Israel Airports Authority, said Ramon was designed to deal with surplus flights by having large parking areas from which planes could quickly taxi.