by Dave Bender
JERUSALEM, July 31 (Xinhua) -- Israel's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the European Commission on Tuesday signed off on what is being touted as a "historic" deal to liberalize air travel between the two entities.
In March, the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding ( MOU) leading to Tuesday's agreement -- pending Knesset (parliament) and European Parliament's approval -- of the so-called open skies agreement.
If enacted, the accord will allow European airlines to increase the number of flights they operate to and from Israel over a five- year period as of 2013 and will lower ticket prices to Europe for Israel travelers.
Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, who actively lobbied for open skies, lauded the agreement.
"I congratulate the signing of the agreement. This is an essential move that will jumpstart tourism to Israel by hundreds of thousands of tourists and will bring about a decrease in fares for the Israeli consumers as well," the minister said.
"Nevertheless," Misezhnikov added, "the state must find a way to ensure support for the Israeli airline companies within the new agreement."
After the MOU signing, a local aviation expert told Xinhua that the deal "will mostly benefit the European carriers, much more than the local carriers El Al, Israir or Arkia -- especially El Al. "
"And it will benefit mostly low-cost carriers in particular, more than the European legacy carriers," said the expert, who requested anonymity.
Israir officials, meanwhile, told the Haaretz daily that they are ready and looking forward to open skies.
One of the main arguments in favor of the deal is that it will not only bring more tourists to Israel, but also be cheaper for Israelis to fly to Europe. However, not everyone in Israel is on board with the idea.
Yoel Mansfeld, a professor at the University of Haifa, told Xinhua after the MOU signing that El Al would suffer from the increased competition.
"There is definitely a problem here. I think it was quite a brutal attempt to impose a standard open skies agreement between Europe and Israel; to impose something perhaps more suitable for countries with more airlines, more activities and more connections to Europe," Mansfeld said.
He added that Israeli airlines employ expensive security precautions that most other airlines do not, which add to their operating costs. El Al, for example, has armed guards on each of its international flights, and is retrofitting pricey, hi-tech anti-missile pods to its craft on several routes.
While more routes would be open into Israeli airports after the open skies agreement comes into effect, this, however, does not mean that Israeli airlines would be able to operate more flights to Europe, as they might not be able to get more landing slots at the airports which they want to fly to.
"I don't know how they will assure good slots at European airports, as airports aren't part of the agreement," Mansfeld said.
"Definitely, when you have EasyJet flying from Paris or from smaller German airports, or RyanAir flying from Italy, that is going to hit El Al very hard," the expert said.
An additional problem for El Al is that the carrier is not part of either of the two main airline alliances: One World or Star Alliance, to which most major airlines belong.
Since airlines are restrictive about letting passengers use bonus points or air miles collected on flights that are not part of their alliance, frequent travelers might choose an airline as part of a network over El Al.
The Israeli government boosted its share of the load for local carriers by 5 percent to 70 percent in 2012, and is expected to cover 80 percent of the costs when open skies is fully implemented in the summer of 2017.
EU officials met with Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and urged them to sign off on the deal, according to the Globes business site.
"I was convinced that it is a good agreement and also includes advantages for Israeli aviation," Katz said Monday, according to Haaretz.
"I believe in the abilities of the managers of (Israeli) airlines to lead to prosperity and success even in an open and competitive environment. The agreement will enable the lowering of the cost of flights between Israel and Europe, and will open new destinations," he added.