Israel is having a moment. The number of visitors to the country hit a record 4.6 million in 2019, then cratered during the pandemic. Now, travelers are eager to return and U.S. airlines ready to serve them.
New flights on American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are coming, after a slew of nonstops from United Airlines. American will expand its schedule to Tel Aviv from Miami in November, and Delta will launch new nonstop service from Atlanta next spring. The additions come after U.S. travel to Israel grew by 4.5 percent over 2019 levels in July, marking the first monthly gain since the pandemic began.
“Travel has picked up,” said Yael Golan, director of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism for the Southern U.S. “People are looking for meaningful travel and they had Israel in their book, whether they are Jewish or Christian.” In 2019, international travel to Israel reached a record 4.6 million visitors, a nearly three-fold increase from 2009. But numbers fell during the pandemic to 832,000 people in 2020, and 397,000 in 2021. The figures include cruise ship passengers and one-day visitors. Typically, the U.S. is the primary source of international visitors, with nearly a million Americans traveling to the country in 2019.
Now Delta, which already flies to Tel Aviv from Boston and New York JFK, is adding Atlanta service. American, which did not fly to Israel before the pandemic, has added Miami and New York service. And United, which has the largest share of the U.S.-Israel market, serves Tel Aviv from four hubs, with plans to add more flights from Chicago O’Hare.
In August, Delta announced the new thrice-weekly Atlanta-Tel Aviv route with a May 2023 launch date. A few weeks later, the SkyTeam Alliance carrier moved the startup date to next March. It will operate the new Tel Aviv flights with an Airbus A350-900 that seats 339 passengers. Delta previously flew Atlanta-Tel Aviv from 2006 to 2011, when it cancelled the route due to low yields and a desire to use the aircraft for Asia flights.
“I was very happy, but not completely surprised” by the restart, Golan said. “We’ve been working with them for a few years. The Southeastern United States is growing economically, people are moving to the South, and this will be a good connection for people from the central U.S. and the west coast.”
Delta Senior Vice President for Network Planning Joe Esposito said in a statement: “Offering our customers additional access to the cultural powerhouse that is Tel Aviv is central to our unwavering commitment to connect the world. As we continue to invest in our leading-airline position in Atlanta, we know our customers will enjoy unparalleled connectivity to Delta’s global network.”
American returned to Israel in 2021. The launch came five years after ending flights between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv; a route that it inherited from US Airways. When the airline returned, it used legacy American hubs, including New York JFK, as gateways rather than the former US Airways stronghold. American plans to boost Miami service to daily from thrice weekly in October using a Boeing 787-8. American had planned to fly between Dallas-Fort Worth — its largest hub — and Tel Aviv but the carrier pulled the route due to “soft demand” in May.
“The only dream I still have left is American from DFW; that is on hold,” Golan said.
As for United, it continues to lead the market between the U.S. and Tel Aviv, a position it will expand with additional Chicago frequencies. The carrier currently flies three times a week and, from November 1, it will operate four times a week through March. United also serves Tel Aviv twice daily from Newark, daily from San Francisco, and thrice weekly from Washington Dulles.
Meanwhile, Israel’s El Al serves Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York JFK, and Newark from Tel Aviv. The carrier, which plans to grow as it emerges from the crisis, has announced plans to move its U.S. headquarters to Miami from New York in an effort to reduce rental costs.
The pandemic came amid rising international travel to Israel. “We doubled the number in four years,” Golan said. The dramatic decline reflected Covid precautions that were implemented around the world. During the pandemic, “we kept the [tourism] office open. We succeeded in keeping Israel top of mind. Demand was always there. Once we lifted our regulations for vaccinated people, and once the U.S. lifted the requirement for testing [before entry], that’s when the gates opened.”
To be sure, travel to Israel can involve unique complications. For instance, in March, the Sierra Club canceled trips to Israel, scheduled for this spring and spring 2023, under pressure from anti-Israel activists. A few days later, the environmentally-focused organization said on its website that the decision to cancel the trips was made “hastily,” that it “was done in ways that created confusion, anger, and frustration,” and that the Sierra Club was “committed to working more intentionally, thoroughly and thoughtfully so we can prevent this from happening again.”
Updated to restate 2020 and 2021 visitor numbers to Israel.