El Al Decision to Cut Istanbul Route Angers Turkish Jews and Officials

El Al’s recent decision to discontinue flights to Turkey has sparked vocal criticism from the Turkish Jewish community and Israeli diplomats in Ankara, who say the airline’s move sends the wrong signal to Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world.

“It’s a terrible decision,” said Israel’s ambassador in Ankara, Pinchas Avivi. “I can’t comment on economic decisions, but from a political standpoint it will cause harm, and it’s a slap in the face to the Turkish Jewish community. I’m afraid the Turkish government will look at this as a downgrading of the relations between the two countries.”

El Al, which has been flying to Turkey for more than 50 years, will cease its Tel Aviv-Istanbul service March 1, leaving Turkish Airlines as the only company flying the route. El Al, the former national carrier that was privatized several years ago, also announced that it will be discontinuing flights to Cyprus.

Israel’s largest airline has been undergoing a reorganization process during the last year that has seen it introduce additional flights to Hong Kong, Beijing and Miami, and a new nonstop service to Los Angeles.

“The Istanbul and Larnaca routes don’t meet our declared criteria in the reorganization and suffer from high security costs and other operational limitations,” El Al, whose headquarters are at Ben-Gurion International Airport, said in a statement.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson, speaking on traditional condition of anonymity, said El Al is free to make its own decisions but the move is disappointing.

“This is not something that we are pleased about,” the spokesperson said. ” Of course we would like the flight to continue, at least for the symbolic importance.”

With tourism and trade between Israel and Turkey growing, the hour-and-a-half Istanbul-Tel Aviv route has become a busy one. During the summer El Al was flying the route six times a week. Turkish Airlines has two or three flights a day to Israel all year.

According to an El Al official familiar with the airline’s Turkish operations, El Al planes were about 70 percent full on the route.

“That is very satisfactory in the airline industry. It’s a nice market,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the subject. But he said shorter routes like those to Istanbul and Cyprus did not appear to be part of El Al’s new strategy.

For Turkey’s Jewish community, the El Al decision was unwelcome news. Leaders have called on community members to e-mail or fax letters to El Al CEO Haim Romano asking him to keep the flights.

“We are very unhappy,” said community president Silvio Ovadia. “They are flying since 1955, and we don’t want only one airline flying between Turkey and Israel.

“In summer, all of our youth tours are with El Al. We are using the airline a lot. We would prefer to have both Turkish Airlines and El Al.”

There may be room for hope. When El Al announced last year that it would stop flying to Cairo, also due to high security costs, the Israeli government stepped in, offering to shoulder a majority of those costs.

Valya Mizrahi, a travel agent whose Istanbul agency was the first in Turkey to book El Al tickets, said she has fielded many calls from Jewish clients distressed by the El Al decision.

“There were some people who were flying only with El Al,” she said. “They like and felt secure on it. Now I don’t know what they’ll do.”

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