El Al cancels flights to San Francisco, Europe amid ‘unprecedented’ virus crisis
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El Al cancels flights to San Francisco, Europe amid ‘unprecedented’ virus crisis

Israeli airline, hit hard by spread of coronavirus, combines flights, will use smaller planes as global travel slumps

El Al planes at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, March 16, 2018. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
El Al planes at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, March 16, 2018. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

El Al on Friday cancelled a flight to San Francisco and several others to a number of European cities amid a global drop in travel over fears about the new coronavirus, with a senior company official calling it “an unprecedented crisis.”

Flights that left for San Francisco Friday morning were combined, according to El Al, due to the low number of passengers on each plane.

In Europe, the Israeli airline was cancelling some flights to Berlin, Barcelona and Zurich. All three cities are located in countries which Israel began restricting the entry of non-nationals to on Friday as part of efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

“This is an unprecedented crisis,” a senior El Al official told the Ynet news site.

“The consequences of this crisis are huge and we are trying to do everything we can [to handle it],” he said.

El Al was also expected to cancel flights on Sunday to Munich, Budapest, Amsterdam, Brussels, Bucharest, Vienna and Marseille.

The official at the airline told the website that El Al was working to combine flights and use smaller planes.

Empty departure halls at Ben Gurion Airport. on March 4, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

On Wednesday, El Al fired some 600 permanent workers as it grapples with ongoing financial losses caused by the virus outbreak.

Other employees in high paying roles are likely to have their salaries cut.

The airline also axed hundreds of temporary workers, who are employed by the company for under five years. The fired staff include air crews, flight attendants, ground crews and others.

The company appears to be one of the hardest hit in Israel by the virus. On Wednesday, the Bank of Israel said the country’s economy was weathering the crisis, but was ready to step in to help if necessary.

On Tuesday El Al cut salaries of its senior staff by 20 percent. The salary reduction includes the company’s board of directors and chairman, and retroactively takes effect from March 1, Channel 12 reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the head of the union, Sharon Ben Itzhak, that he had assigned a ministerial committee to help El Al and other Israeli airlines.

Besides cutting back flights, El Al has also suspended flights to Italy and Thailand and and said it would delay its planned launch of direct flights to Tokyo until April. The airline extended its halt of flights to Beijing and Hong Kong until May.

A pilgrim wearing a protective mask visis the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City in Jerusalem on February 27, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Despite the damage to the aviation industry, the Tourism Ministry said Wednesday that the usual number of tourists entered Israel in February, with some 344,000 arrivals and an estimated tourist revenue of $486 million.

Israel has thus far taken far-reaching measures to curb the spread of coronavirus, forcing thousands of Israelis into self-quarantine, barring foreigners from countries hit hard by the virus, banning large gatherings, and advising against personal contact and travel abroad.

It was the first country to urge its citizens to refrain from international travel entirely because of the outbreak, which started in China in December and has since infected over 100,000 in about 85 nations and claimed nearly 3,400 lives, almost all of them in China.

There have been 19 confirmed cases of the virus in Israel and no deaths.

Luke Tress contributed to this report.

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