El Al began its weekly service to China in September 1992, with a departure for Beijing on Thursday and returning to Tel Aviv on Saturday. Initial hopes were to carry 7,000 passengers in the first year, rising to 15,000 by year three and increasing the service to two flights weekly after six months of operation.
The extra service has not materialised but this is largely due to the fact that last summer Air China exercised its right to operate a service between the two countries, effectively doubling capacity on the route. For this same reason, it is also unlikely that El Al will shortly take up the option of an additional slot to China that was granted to the company in a recent bilateral agreement.
But passenger volumes have been encouraging and El Al remains positive about prospects. The service began with Boeing 767s with a capacity of 224 seats, but such was the pent-up demand for visiting China that the capacity was increased to the 458-seat 747s. Since then, El Al has reverted to the 767 but throughout the course of the year they have operated at an average 90 per cent capacity ? a level that would be the envy of many other carriers.
The service has stimulated Israel's interest in China; over 90 per cent of passengers are tourists. "I would unreservedly recommend China as a tourist destination", says Mr Jacob Yaron, vice president of El Al in the UK. "The tour guides I have met have been helpful, intelligent and speak good English."
Business travel has been relatively light, but may be stimulated by the recently forged bilateral cooperation in agriculture. The creation of a joint agricultural committee and a mechanism for the exchange of scientists should strengthen ties. Agriculture and construction are two areas in which Israel has most to offer in terms of technology transfer and consultancy.
More ambitious is El Al's hope to attract European and US travellers to use the service as a gateway to the Far East. Only very small numbers from the US and Europe are currently flying to Beijing via Tel Aviv. With just one service a week and an overnight stay in Tel Aviv, it is currently proving difficult to market to individual tourists and business travellers. *