December 9, 2014 / 2:28 PM / 3 years ago

Rattled by wartime rockets, Israel plans alternate airport

A passenger looks out of a window at Ben Gurion International airport, near Tel Aviv July 24, 2014. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

JERUSALEM (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 heavy 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 19 km (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 militant groups in next-door Egypt.

At about 200 km from Gaza and 370 km from Lebanon, Ramon would also be out of the effective range of almost all of the rockets wielded by the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Ramon will be 3-4 hours’ drive from Tel Aviv and the holy city of Jerusalem. 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.

Ramon’s tower would be linked up to the two military radar bases that provide Israel’s overall air traffic monitoring, he said, and in wartime the airport would be reinforced with staff from Ben Gurion.

During the Gaza war, some Ben Gurion flights were diverted to Ovda, a southern Israeli airbase, but it proved insufficient, officials said.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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