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Israel's El Al Airlines posts deepening losses as market share shrinks

JERUSALEM, March 21 (Reuters) - El Al Israel Airlines reported higher fourth-quarter losses on Wednesday, citing increased salary and jet fuel expenses and as its market share continued to erode in the face of intensifying competition.

Israel's flag carrier has met with stiff competition from rivals including Turkish Airlines, Aeroflot, easyJet and WizzAir, which offer lower fares even though some flights require a layover.

"During 2017 the company faced increasing competition in the Israeli aviation market as a result of a significant increase in the number of seats of foreign airlines, especially low-cost carriers," said Chief Executive Gonen Usishkin.

The company said it lost $29.7 million in the final three months of the year, compared with a $2.4 million loss a year earlier.

Revenue grew by 11 percent to $512 million, but this was more than offset by a 17 percent rise in expenses, mainly from salaries and jet fuel.

El Al remained the market leader at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, but its market share fell to 28.5 percent last year from 32.6 percent in 2016.

Passenger numbers rose 2.4 percent last year while the total number of travelers at Ben Gurion was up 16 percent.

El Al is banking on a more than $1 billon overhaul of its long-range fleet to win back customers while also revamping its short-haul fare structure.

It has received the first four of 16 Boeing 787 aircraft that will be delivered by 2020 and plans to expand in North America this year with non-stop flights to San Francisco, competing with U.S. carrier United.

In November El Al started non-stop flights to Miami, having begun flying to Boston in 2015.

El Al has said it plans to add more long-haul routes but a decision is unlikely to be made until later in 2018. At the same time, it plans to refurbish its 737 jets flying to Europe.

(Reporting by Steven Scheer Editing by David Goodman)