Israel’s airports chief said pushing Health Ministry to reopen skies immediately

Warning of ‘irreversible damage’ of ongoing closure, head of the Israel Airports Authority insists work has been done at airfield to mitigate risks to travelers and staff

Grounded El Al planes at Ben Gurion Airport on April 6, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (Moshe Shai/ Flash90)
Grounded El Al planes at Ben Gurion Airport on April 6, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (Moshe Shai/ Flash90)

The head of the Israel Airports Authority has reportedly asked the Health Ministry to allow the immediate resumption of flights to prevent “potentially irreversible damage” to the tourism industry.

Israel’s skies have been largely shut since mid March after the country banned foreigners from entering and imposed a two-week quarantine on Israelis who had been abroad, essentially shuttering the tourism industry.

According to a report by Channel 12 news, Yaakov Ganot told outgoing Health Ministry head Moshe Bar Siman-Tov that a framework should be drawn up to allow travel between Israel and countries designated as “green countries,” i.e., with a low rate of coronavirus infection.

The letter stated that work has been carried out at the airports to allow travel while “reducing the risk of migrating the disease and a new outbreak of the virus.”

In addition to the labeling of some countries as acceptable for flights, in accordance with Health Ministry parameters, the letter also stated that a “blue standard” was developed to categorize the safety of airlines and foreign airports.

General Manager of the Airports Authority, Yaakov Ganot, during the Public Inquiries Committee meeting at the Knesset, on June 24, 2014 (Flash 90)

The letter noted that Israel’s geographical location, with few land links to neighbors, means that air travel was of the utmost importance for the tourism industry.

“Failure to make a decision makes it clear — the elimination of the airline and tourism industry for the summer season, and potentially irreversible damage,” Ganot said.

Israeli officials have debated in recent weeks allowing in travelers from five countries — Greece, Cyprus, the Seychelles, Georgia and Montenegro. Talks are also underway with Austria about adding it to the list.

The plan, which has not yet received final approval, would have a pilot stage over the summer during which officials would carefully track the effects of an open-border policy from the five nations, all of which have a very low rate of infection for the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Israel’s tourism industry, which employs some 80,000 people and contributes some 3 percent to the gross national product, has been gutted by the virus, with hotels and tourist sites shut until last week and global air travel down by more than half.

Despite new virus cases mostly dwindling, the airport remains on emergency footing, with only a few flights in and out of the country daily.

Israel has largely brought the virus under control in the country and lifted most lockdown restrictions. However, most foreigners are still barred from coming in and Israelis, or permanent residents, must quarantine for 14 days after returning.

Epidemiological research conducted in Israel has shown that a majority of cases in the country resulted from incoming travel from the United States.

The empty arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, April 12, 2020. (Flash90)

A top official at Ben-Gurion International Airport said earlier this month that he believed Israel’s main gateway would likely only begin to ease back into normal operations in July.

“Nobody wants infections to break out here again and we all know that the virus came to Israel by air,” Ben-Gurion CEO Shaul Zakai told Channel 12 news after a tour by Health Ministry officials to test the airport’s readiness.

New procedures at the airport mean passengers now must present their passports and flight tickets and have their temperatures taken before they are allowed inside the departure hall at Ben Gurion Airport.

Once inside the airport, passengers must wear a band that identifies them as having been allowed in, and a protective mask. In addition, security and check-in counters now separate staff from passengers with a plexiglass barrier as required by coronavirus regulations.

Illustrative: Israeli travelers who had been stranded in South America arrive at Ben Gurion airport on March 23, 2020, from Sao Paolo via New York. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Earlier this month, National Security Council chief Meir Ben-Shabbat cautioned the government against relaxing Israel’s strict border controls, saying that high rates of coronavirus infection overseas posed a renewed threat to Israel. Ben-Shabbat sent a letter to senior government officials noting that enforcement of existing regulations was of extreme importance if Israel wanted to hold on to its achievement in suppressing the virus, Channel 12 reported.

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