Airport boss sorry for chaos; MK calls on government for help

Ben Gurion Airport head says canceling flights would ease lines but raise prices; says he hopes to hire Haredi staff, offer university tuition incentives to workers

Lines for check-in at Ben Gurion Airport, June 26, 2022 (Amy Spiro/Times of Israel)
Lines for check-in at Ben Gurion Airport, June 26, 2022 (Amy Spiro/Times of Israel)

The director of Ben Gurion International Airport has apologized for the chaos at the airfield, but said it was because he didn’t want to cancel flights as that could lead to higher prices.

“This is not the level of service we are supposed to provide to passengers seeking to travel abroad,” Shmuel Zakai acknowledged, speaking to Channel 12 news on Tuesday.

“I okayed a crowded flight schedule to ensure competition on flights abroad so that prices would not rise. In choosing between long lines at Ben Gurion Airport and the cancellation of flights, we chose the first option for the benefit of the Israeli consumer,” he said.

“Planes are leaving late because we are delaying them. I would prefer for a flight to be late if it means that all the passengers waiting in line for hours can get on,” Zakai said.

Zakai added that efforts are being made to recruit new employees and also retrain existing workers so that they can help with security screening, and said that there was an effort underway to hire Haredi staff.

“We took 400 employees at the Airports Authority who don’t work in the security sector and retrained them as security inspectors,” he said.

“I also gave permission to recruit more young people to work in ground services at the airport, and we are also in the process of recruiting workers from the ultra-Orthodox community,” he said.

File: General Manager of Ben Gurion Airport, Shmuel Zakai, in the Knesset, June 24, 2014. (Flash 90)

Zakai also said that airport staff needed to be included in programs that offer help with university tuition, to attract new workers and retain existing staff.

“We are asking the Finance Ministry to approve our participation in programs to help with university tuition for students who work for us. This is the game-changer we need at Ben Gurion Airport,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Special Committee for Public Inquiries convened at the Knesset to discuss the issue of rampant crowding and delays at the airport, and put forward a number of proposals to address it.

The committee said steps should be taken to recruit new employees amid staffing shortages and to ensure that current workers don’t leave.

In addition, the panel proposed that a pre-flight check-in service be offered in the north of the country to try to ease the congestion in the departure hall. Currently El Al passengers are able to check in their luggage and receive boarding passes 24 hours in advance of their flight, but the service is only available at the airport itself.

Lines for security screening at Ben Gurion Airport, June 26, 2022 (Amy Spiro/Times of Israel)

The committee’s chair, Blue and White MK Yael Ron Ben-Moshe, said that the matter would require significant investment.

“The government needs to put its hand deep in its pocket and solve the root causes of the problem,” she said.

Months of heavy congestion and an overall sense of chaos at Ben Gurion Airport have worsened in recent weeks, with long lines reaching outside the main terminal and attempts to ease the crowding by using a secondary terminal failing to address the thing needed most — more staff.

In an attempt to ease the congestion at the main terminal building (Terminal 3), the Israel Airports Authority diverted some international flights to Terminal 1, which only seemed to create further disorder as the congestion spread.

Travelers have been advised to arrive four hours ahead of their flights instead of the three hours usually recommended.

Scenes of chaos and long lines at the airport have become more frequent since March, when Israel eased most COVID-related travel restrictions. The situation became worse during the Jewish holiday of Passover, which saw an estimated 75,000 passengers go through the airport in a single day.

Departing travelers at Ben Gurion Airport ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover, April 14, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

Ofer Lapler, spokesman for the Israel Airports Authority, said earlier this month that there has been a 340 percent increase in passengers and flights at Ben Gurion Airport since March.

The unusual situation is the result of increased international flights combined with a shortage of workers, as many airport employees still haven’t returned to work following the pandemic.

Lapler urged travelers to bring only carry-on bags, rather than larger pieces of luggage that need to be checked in.

Customers of El Al have also faced a slew of flight cancellations as pilots strike to demand that the company return their salaries to pre-COVID levels.

Illustrative: El Al workers are seen at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, on March 1, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

Lapler has noted that there have been staffing problems at airports and airlines in numerous countries, saying that Israel was in fact in an “excellent position.”

NBC News recently reported that 6,500 flights were canceled in the United States on Thursday and Friday last week, with nearly 12,000 flights delayed. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called on travel industry leaders to find solutions to the disruption, with concerns of mass cancellations for the July 4 weekend.

Tobias Segal and Michael Horovitz contributed to this report.

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