El Al expected to scupper launch of direct line to Tokyo due to virus fears

Airline set to drop inaugural March 11 flight to Japan as coronavirus wreaks havoc on global tourism and company reports significant loss in revenue

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 Airlines is expected to cancel its launch of direct flights to Tokyo due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to a Saturday report.

The company is expected to make an announcement in the coming days postponing its inaugural flight to Japan, which was scheduled for March 11, the Globes business daily reported.

The nonstop flights — three per week — were set to use the company’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft and were announced in May 2019.

Outgoing flights to Japan were expected to take 11 hours and 15 minutes, with return flights taking a little longer — 12.5 hours.

Forty thousand Israelis visited Japan in 2018 and half that number of Japanese tourists came to the Jewish state. The company did not disclose how much the flight would cost.

The virus outbreak has already caused significant damage to the tourism and airline industries, including in Israel, and is likely to continue causing havoc going forward.

Japan is considered a top tourist destination, and the 2020 Olympics were expected to be a massive draw for Tokyo this summer.

Japan has confirmed more than 750 cases, including 634 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was docked and quarantined in Yokohama, near Tokyo.

While global attention was on the cruise ship, the virus, officially dubbed COVID-19, has already made its way into Japan and is gradually spreading in the country, from Okinawa in the south to Hokkaido in the north.

A series of concerts, athletic events and festivals have been scrapped, with some people starting to question whether Japan can host this summer’s Olympics as planned.

Workers inside a building at Tel HaShomer Hospital which was converted to receive the Israelis who were under quarantine on the cruise ship Diamond Princess in Japan due to the spread of the coronavirus, and arriving in Israel tonight, February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry is expected on Sunday to order a two-week self-quarantine of Israeli travelers returning from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and potentially ban citizens from those countries from entering Israel. Such guidelines are already in effect for those returning from China, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau.

Israel has banned non-Israelis who visited many of those places in the last 14 days from entering the country and on Saturday blocked some 200 people on a plane arriving from Seoul, though it said the case was a one-off and Korean tourists were not being banned.

The new flight line would therefore lack passengers for the the time being, and El Al executives who planned to inaugurate the new line would need to self-quarantine upon returning to Israel.

The airline has already reported a significant revenue hit due to the virus. Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich has said the government should consider compensating the company for the loss.

The company is also expected to order a temporary cancellation of flights to Bangkok. It has already halted flights to China and Hong Kong.

El Al announced on Wednesday that it would waive cancellation fees for upcoming flights to Europe in a bid to attract customers to compensate for lost business.

El Al has benefited from the outbreak in one way, however — fuel prices have dropped sharply due to a decrease in demand.

South Korean medical workers wearing protective gear transfer a suspected coronavirus patient (C) to another hospital from Daenam Hospital where a total of 16 infections have now been identified with the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Cheongdo county near the southeastern city of Daegu on February 21, 2020 (YONHAP / AFP)

Globally, nearly 78,000 people have been infected in 29 countries, and more than 2,300 have died.

Though the overwhelming number of cases have been in mainland China, hotspots have begun to spring up around the world, including in South Korea, Iran and Italy, with some health officials saying cases can no longer all be traced back to China’s Wuhan, the epicenter of the potential pandemic.

Hundreds of Israelis have contacted medical professionals over fears they contracted the contagion, authorities said Saturday night, and the government announced an emergency meeting aimed at stopping the spread of the deadly virus.

One person in Israel so far as been confirmed to have contracted the virus, a woman who returned to the country after being quarantined on the cruise ship off Japan, but fears have spread over an outbreak here, especially after it emerged that some Korean tourists who visited the country recently had been found to be carrying the contagion.

Some 200 students and teachers who came in contact with the group were ordered to self-quarantine.  The Health Ministry has called on anyone else who was in close contact with the Korean visitors to report and self-quarantine for 14 days from the date of their last interaction.

The Health Ministry warned Thursday that Israelis caught violating the self-quarantine could face up to seven years in prison.

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