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Ben Gurion Airport on ‘Yom Kippur footing’ after sweeping virus restrictions

‘We’ve never seen anything like this,’ says head of workers union as manpower reduced by 70%, half of main terminal shuttered

El Al Airlines' Boeing 737s are pictured on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, March 10, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)
El Al Airlines' Boeing 737s are pictured on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, March 10, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Ben Gurion Airport will shutter half of its main international terminal and reduce its manpower by 70 percent after Israel drastically tightened restrictions on travelers to stem the spread of COVID-19, prompting a wave of canceled flights.

Two out of five check-in areas in Terminal 3 will be closed immediately, the country’s main airport said Tuesday, as the workers union announced it was shifting into “Yom Kippur footing.” According to reports, just 30% of airport employees will be told to report for work amid the spiraling crisis.

The airport previously announced it was closing Terminal 1, which serves charter and domestic flights, until the end of April.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday night that anyone arriving in the country must self-quarantine for 14 days due to concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus. Monday’s quarantine decision was expected to essentially shut down tourism to Israel, as only non-citizens with a place to quarantine for 14 days will be allowed in the country. Those already in Israel will need to leave “in an orderly fashion in the coming days,” the Health Ministry said in a statement. Many Israelis were also expected to cancel travel plans rather than face two weeks of quarantine when they return home.

People wearing face masks for fear of the coronavirus at Ben Gurion International airport, February 27, 2020. (Avshalom Shoshani/Flash90)

According to Channel 12, the Airports Authority has also decided that Ramon Airport in Eilat will be closed at night, though it will remain open during the day.

“Before Passover there will be wide layoffs at the airport. We’re waiting for a miracle,” lamented Pinchas Idan, who heads the workers union, in an interview with the network.

“I have no words. I’ve worked for the authority for over 40 years, many of them as head of the union. We’ve never experienced anything like this, not during the Gulf War [of 1991] and not during the first and second intifadas,” he added. “There’s never been anything like this.”

On Monday, the Arkia airline said it was ending international flights immediately until further notice and diverting its resources to bolster internal services. Among the routes that will see increased service will be flights to the resort city of Eilat at the southern tip of the country.

“This is a death blow. There is no more Israeli aviation — not Arkia, not El Al, not Israir,” Avi Nakash, an Arkia owner, told Channel 12 news, referring to the national carrier and a second Israeli airline.

Israir Airlines said it will end international charter flights from next week until the end of the month. The company said in a statement it will strive to bring all of its passengers who are still abroad — around 5,000 — back to the country by the end of the week.

The airline’s internal flights from Haifa and Ben Gurion Airport to Ramon International Airport near Eilat will continue as scheduled, it said.

“This is a difficult time for the country’s tourism industry,” Israir said in the statement.

An Israir flight seen taking off from Ben Gurion International Airport, on March 24, 2018. (Shai/FLASH90`0

Wizz Air, a low-cost Hungarian airline, also said Monday that it will halt flights between Europe and Israel starting Thursday until March 23 due to the quarantine order. Among the canceled routes are flights to destinations including Vienna, Budapest, London, and Warsaw.

After the quarantine measures were announced, El Al, Israel’s flag carrier, said it will continue to offer international flights, although with reduced services. Netanyau has vowed support for El Al, which started layoffs after massive losses in revenue due to the coronavirus outbreak.

There are some 300,000 Israelis abroad who are expected to return to the country this week, Channel 13 reported, without giving a source for the figure.

Some foreign carriers have already paused their services to Israel. Italy’s national airline Alitalia and Spain’s flag carrier Iberia said Friday they would no longer fly to the Jewish state, a day after German airline giant Lufthansa said it was canceling all flights to Israel until March 28.

El Al on Friday canceled some flights to San Francisco and a number of European cities, with a senior company official calling the virus outbreak “an unprecedented crisis.”

The company was also expected to cancel services to Munich, Budapest, Amsterdam, Brussels, Bucharest, Vienna and Marseille.

The empty departure halls of Ben Gurion Airport on March 8, 2020. (Flash90)

On Sunday, even before the sweeping quarantine order on all arrivals was issued, El Al reported to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange that it expects revenue to decline by $140-160 million for the period from January to April 2020 as a result of the suspension of multiple lines and declining demand in others due to the worldwide outbreak.

El Al said revenue decline for the first quarter would amount to $80-90 million, while it expected losses for the same period of $70-90 million. Losses for the period from January to April are expected to total $80-90 million. El Al said losses would be offset to a certain extent by cuts in operating expenses.

The airline axed hundreds of employees and slashed salaries last week as it grappled with ongoing financial losses precipitated by the virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

The Finance Ministry assessed the new order would cost Israel some NIS 4.9 billion ($1.4 billion) a month, Channel 12 reported.

“So the Health Ministry can present the best statistics in the world [on the coronavirus], they’re destroying the country’s economy,” the network quoted unnamed cabinet ministers as saying.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) warned Thursday the total revenue impact on the industry could be in the range of $63-$100 billion.

Illustrative image of the pink and purple stripes of a Wizz Air plane (Courtesy Wizz Air)

There have so far been 50 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Israel, most of them contracted by travelers returning from abroad. The government has for weeks ordered measures to clamp down on foreign entries and force home quarantines. Some have criticized the measures as draconian and diplomatically harmful, but officials have defended them as helping keep the virus at bay. Some 22,000 Israelis are already in quarantine, the Health Ministry said Monday morning.

Unlike other quarantine orders, which were open-ended, Netanyahu said the new, sweeping quarantine order will be in place for two weeks. He added that further decisions were being made by the government to protect the economy, though he did not elaborate.

The virus, which emerged in China late last year, has infected over 110,000 people in more than 90 countries, killing over 4,000.

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