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Israel opens new international airport near Red Sea

Ramon Airport, Israel

ISRAEL inaugurated a new international airport on Monday in its desert south meant to boost tourism to the nearby Red Sea and serve as an emergency alternative to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the inauguration ceremony at the sleek terminal, arriving on the ceremonial first flight to the airport, whose location has upset neighbouring Jordan.

"Ramon airport, this is Arkia 683, we're very excited," Mr Netanyahu said from the cockpit on arrival in an exchange with the tower relayed over loudspeakers.

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Initially, Ramon Airport will handle only domestic flights, operated by Israeli carriers Arkia and Israir. A date has not yet been given for the start of international flights.

The new airport, named after Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut who died in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, will in the future host jumbo jets from around the globe.

Its website says that it will be able to initially handle up to two million passengers annually, but will be able to expand to a capacity of 4.2 million by 2030.

It says that it has a 3,600-metre long runway and apron parking space for nine "large and wide-body aircraft". It also has freight-handling facilities.

Ramon is about 18 kilometres from the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat and the adjacent Jordanian port of Aqaba.

Jordan, one of only two Arab countries with a peace treaty with Israel, criticised the new airport, saying it would threaten the kingdom's airspace.

"Jordan rejects the establishment of the Israeli airport in its current location," head of Jordan's Civil Aviation Regulatory Commission Haitham Misto said, according to state media.

Mr Misto said the airport violated "international standards regarding respect for the sovereignty of airspace and territory of other countries".

Low-cost and charter airlines currently flying to Ovda airport, about 60 km from Eilat, will move to Ramon, the airport's website says.

They include Ryanair, Wizz Air, EasyJet, SAS, Finnair and Ural Airlines.

The new airport will also replace Eilat's small municipal airfield, where for decades arriving aircraft have swooped past hotel towers.

Construction costs for the new airport have been put at US$455 million.

Work began in 2013 but original specifications for the project were revised to allow for upgrades.

The Israel Airports Authority (IAA) has said that the plans for the Ramon project were revised in light of lessons learned during the 2014 Gaza war.

"In an emergency, not only will Israel's entire passenger air fleet be able to land and park there, but also additional aircraft," the IAA says.

After a rocket fired by Hamas militants in Gaza hit near the perimeter of Ben Gurion airport in 2014, international carriers suspended flights.

Israeli media have said that a 26-metre high, 4.5-km long "smart" anti-missile fence has been installed to help protect Ramon, which is adjacent to the border with Jordan.

The IAA refused to comment on those reports. AFP