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Aviation workers block runway, shut down Ben Gurion Airport, panning virus rules

Flights couldn’t take off for two hours, inbound planes not unloaded; demonstrators say they want government support as new regulations ravage industry

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Aviation industry workers protest against COVID-19 regulations at Ben Gurion Airport, August 19, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Aviation industry workers protest against COVID-19 regulations at Ben Gurion Airport, August 19, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Flights out of Ben Gurion Airport were halted for two hours Thursday as more than a thousand aviation workers physically blocked the runways, accusing the government of applying COVID-19 travel restrictions without properly addressing the impact on their industry and livelihoods.

All departing flights were halted from 10 a.m. until midday during the protest while demonstrators gathered on the runway.

Signs carried by the protesters said: “We are being thrown out of the plane without a parachute,” “If there is no Israeli aviation foreign companies also won’t land here,” and “The government is abandoning Israeli aviation.”

Planes were not completely blocked from landing at the country’s main international terminus, but they were not unloaded and passengers were forced to wait to collect their luggage.

The protest impacted 11 flights that were due to take off during those hours and 10 that arrived.

Aviation workers are protesting against government rules that have cut down the number of passengers, slashing plane bookings amid a crisis resulting from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic early last year.

Israel Airports Authority workers protest against COVID-19 regulations at Ben Gurion Airport, August 19, 2021. The sign says: “We are being thrown out of the plane without a parachute.” (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Thousands have been fired from the industry and thousands more who were put on unpaid leave have yet to return to their jobs, according to the Israel Transport Workers Union, which is part of the Histadrut labor federation.

The protest was prompted by recent health regulations mandating that arrivals from most countries quarantine for a week, which prompted a wave of cancellations.

“We want the government to know how to support the workers in [the aviation industry] when it decides to close the sky,” transport union chief Avi Edri said at the protest.

“It is unthinkable to have destinations closed off without support given to companies or payment to workers,” he said.

Edri called on the government to provide financial support to workers and warned that if there is no improvement, more of the country’s unions may join the protests.

“There is no problem with the government closing the sky, but there are people, and you cannot cut off their livelihoods,” he said.

“Workers are financially collapsing and where are the decision-makers?” Sharon Ben-Itzhak, a member of the El Al employee committee, told the Ynet website.

Screen capture from video of Avi Edri, chair of the Israel Transport Workers Union, during a protest by aviation employees at Ben Gurion Airport, August 19, 2021. (Ynet news)

Workers were joined at the protest by pilots, among them Meidan Bar, a member of the Israel Air Lines Pilots Association, who said they were there to show solidarity with the workers. Bar lamented that confusion is being caused by rapidly changing rules on travel abroad.

“The demonstrators want three things — to work, assistance, and to end the confusion,” he told Ynet. “A traveler who wants to buy a plane ticket to go abroad doesn’t know what, where, when and how. That harms everyone.”

At the beginning of the week, as new travel restrictions were about to begin, the labor unions of aviation companies announced they would begin protest action at the end of this week, saying the government had “abandoned workers in the industry.”

In a statement, they warned that “our intention is to take extreme action if necessary.”

Under the new restrictions, there are only 10 countries from which vaccinated or COVID-19 recovered Israelis are able to return without having to quarantine fully and instead only isolate until receipt of a negative test result.

Those countries are: Austria, Australia, Hong Kong, Hungary, Taiwan, Moldova, New Zealand, China, Singapore and the Czech Republic. Most of those locations are not allowing tourists to enter.

Though travel in and out of the country is still possible, over the past year Israel has at times entirely shut down the airport except for humanitarian cases and often required all arrivals to quarantine for two weeks.

After driving down infections to barely more than a dozen new cases each day in June, Israel has seen a resurgence of COVID-19 infections that saw 7,856 cases diagnosed on Wednesday. The wave has been blamed on the highly contagious Delta variant, brought into the country by travelers who did not properly quarantine.

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