Airports union briefly halts flights due to dispute over resuming travel

Strike called off after a few hours as workers agree to talks with government; official research body recommends waiting to reopen skies, warning of a ‘serious outbreak’ of virus

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 Israel Airports Authority union announced Friday that workers at Ben Gurion Airport would immediately stop working to protest the government’s handling of the resumption of regular air travel to the country after it was almost completely shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The union said it was immediately “stopping takeoffs and landings” at Israel’s primary airport and that “airplanes currently in the air will have to land at secondary airports according to their alternate routes.”

A few hours later, however, the union said it was calling off the strike after scheduling meetings with the finance and transportation ministers next week.

Several flights had already planned alternative routes when the strike was called off, according to Channel 12 news.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev lashed out at the Finance Ministry, which is led by fellow Likud lawmaker Israel Katz, blaming it for the breakdown in talks that led to the brief strike.

Regev claimed the Finance Ministry went “behind the transportation minister’s back” during talks with the union and that it “now must deal with the consequences” of its alleged actions.

“My unequivocal stance is that the state must stand by the airports authority and guarantee the continued employment of workers who generate huge income for the state coffers over the years,” Regev wrote on Twitter.

Likud Ministers Miri Regev (L) and Israel Katz arrive for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 13, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

The union had threatened the move earlier in the week, demanding the government return the roughly 2,500 of its members on unpaid leave to work as flights begin to trickle into the country again. The union has criticized the government’s failure to publish clear plans for resuming regular air travel and said all workers at Ben Gurion Airport will work under “Yom Kippur protocol” — when there are no flights to and from Israel — until a plan is put on the table.

Almost all air travel to Israel was shut down due to the coronavirus restrictions, with only a handful of flights weekly, including a daily route to Newark, New Jersey, flown by United Airlines.

While some airlines have announced that they are reopening routes, a ban on non-Israelis entering the country remains in place and Israelis who return must still enter self-quarantine for two weeks.

The Israel Airports Authority notified airlines on May 20 that non-citizens would be barred until at least June 15. The order had been set to expire on May 30.

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

The union’s move, which would have effectively shut down most air travel to the country, came a day after three airlines restarted scheduled services to Israel that were halted due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Also Friday, the Intelligence Ministry published a list of countries that Israel can resume regular travel to and from in the coming weeks and months.

According to the report, compiled together with the National Security Agency, Israel can safely resume air travel with 20 “green countries” with low infection rates — Seychelles, Greece, South Korea, Slovenia, Montenegro, Georgia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Austria, Lithuania, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Slovakia, Latvia Iceland and New Zealand. Eleven of these countries are already in talks for restarting flights.

The report also names nine “yellow countries” where infection rates are decreasing and Israel should “continue negotiations to restart flights.” Those countries are Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Malta, Japan and Thailand.

An Air Cyprus plane seen at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, on August 4, 2014. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

While both the union and some government agencies are pushing to ease travel restrictions, a government research body recommended Friday that the resumption of regular flights be pushed off by at least a month.

The Corona National Information and Knowledge Center, run as part of the IDF’s Intelligence Department, warned in a report that “opening the skies may even lead to a significant outbreak.”

According to the report, “Due to the growing global morbidity, the opening of the skies, which means permitting foreigners to enter Israel and canceling the isolation order, could lead to a significant increase in the extent of corona death rate in Israel.”

It said the move “is expected to make it more difficult to contain the virus, and to restrain it within the borders of the State of Israel.”

The warning came as Israel has seen a recent jump in new COVID-19 cases after the daily infection rate steadily dropped through much of May, with the government easing restrictions on movement, economic activity and gatherings that were put in place to contain the virus.

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