El Al, Israel’s national airline, will become a totally private operation by the end of this year, the company has disclosed, and may be flying on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays as early as this summer.
Sheryl Stein, a spokeswoman for El Al in New York, said the government was continuing to sell its shares of the company and would be totally divested “by the end of December.”
Israel “Izzy” Borovich, CEO of Arkia Israel Airlines, has made no secret of his plans to buy El Al and then merge it with Arkia in the belief that there is not enough business to sustain two airlines. The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported that Arkia and its parent company, Knafaim Holdings, held options in El Al totaling 51.9 percent.
The paper recently reported that on June 10 the government’s holding in the airline would be reduced to 49.93 percent, and it quoted government sources as saying there was no reason not to accept Knafaim’s request at that time to increase its stake in the airline. Knafaim has reportedly asked for such approval from Antitrust Authority Director-General Dror Strum, who Maariv said, claimed that the public interest would be best served if both Arkia and El Al remained separate entities.
Once it gains controlling interest, El Al would be in private hands and it would no longer be bound to the governmental prohibition against operating on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.
El Al reported last week that it made $6.35 million last year, following three consecutive years of losses. In 2002, it lost $6.4 million. And Stein, the El Al spokeswoman, said there would be more non-stop flights to Israel this summer than last.
The increase in passengers at El Al reflects a general increase in American Jewish tourism to Israel. Last year, a record 221,000 American Jews visited, part of the more than 1 million who traveled to the country. Although that represents a 25 percent increase over 2002, it is still nowhere close to the record the 2.7 million visitors in 1999.