May 2, 2018 / 11:03 AM / 21 days ago

Israel eyes airbase to handle tourist boom, wartime overspill

AIRPORT CITY, Israel (Reuters) - Israel plans to adapt an air force base for civilian use to accommodate surging tourism and serve as a back-up airport in wartime or bad weather, officials said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Intelligence and Transportation Minister Israel Katz poses for a portrait following an interview with Reuters in New York, U.S., April 27, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

Israel’s need for additional and dispersed aviation gateways hit home during the 2014 Gaza war, when Palestinian rocket fire at metropolitan Tel Aviv prompted most foreign carriers to briefly shun the city’s Ben Gurion Airport.

A second international airport is due to open this year near the southern Red Sea resort of Eilat. That site, the Ilan & Asaf Ramon Airport, will be out of range of most guerrilla salvoes but its operating volume will be one-seventh that of Ben Gurion.

Addressing an Israeli aviation conference, Transportation Minister Israel Katz said Ben Gurion was already dealing with traffic beyond its intended capacity, prompting the airport to erect temporary pavilions to provide cover for travelers.

“There is no doubt that, in addition to the Ramon airport, we have to set up a complement,” Katz said. He said this would entail re-purposing one of two air force bases - Nevatim, in the south, or Ramat David, in the north - for dual civilian use.

Israel has seen a 30 percent growth in tourism this quarter over 2017, which was a record year. Its military has clashed with Iranian forces in Syria, stirring concern that a bigger conflict could erupt, potentially engulfing Lebanon.

Katz, who is part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said the airbase conversion was necessary to anticipate “certain security emergencies, as well as weather impact”. He favored Nevatim, saying it already had dual-use infrastructure, but described Ramat David as having some advantage because the air force had reduced missions there.

Katz gave no date for a decision or for completion of the conversion, saying the matter was in its planning stages and under discussion with the Defence Ministry.

The Defence Ministry did not immediately comment. Nor did the air force chief, Major-General Amikam Norkin, who opened Tuesday’s conference. In a short speech, Norkin said he had managed to attend “because I got a few minutes’ break from the Pit” - a reference to the war-room in Israel’s military headquarters. He departed without taking questions.

Joel Feldschuh, head of Israel’s Civil Aviation Authority, said the repurposed airbase would be dedicated to low-cost package tourism.

“We will have three airports in Israel ... a nationwide spread of airports,” he told the conference.

Editing by Richard Balmforth

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