El Al halting flights to most areas of the world as virus shuts down tourism

Airline says it will maintain regular flights to the US, Canada, France, South Africa as it struggles to stay afloat amid coronavirus panic, government restrictions

The empty departure hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)
The empty departure hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

El Al said Thursday it was pausing flights to most areas of the world, but would maintain lines to the US, Canada, the UK, France and South Africa as the airline grapples with the coronavirus-induced wipeout of nearly all its business activities.

The airline said it would gradually halt flights to Europe before Sunday, except for London and Paris.

Flights to Boston and Mumbai will cease on Sunday; San Francisco, Moscow and Brussels on Monday; and Miami and Los Angeles on Wednesday.

“We’re following the situation and out of national responsibility we’ll maintain regular air connections with New York, Newark, Toronto, London, Paris and Johannesburg for the purpose of transporting passengers and cargo,” El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin said.

El Al, Israel’s largest airline, said Wednesday it would soon put some 80 percent of its workforce, or 4,000 employees, on indefinite unpaid leave.

Every branch of the company will be affected, including management, according to internal memos reported by Hebrew media. The suspensions will begin next week. The company has already axed hundreds of incoming employees, frozen hiring and slashed salaries, including to pilots and management.

El Al was already struggling with dramatic reductions in flights when Israel announced on Monday it was extending its quarantine requirement to travelers from all countries, effectively sentencing all travelers to a two-week home stay in a bid to slow the virus’s infiltration into the country.

Israeli travel industry representatives have warned of a “death blow” caused by Israel’s restrictive measures, which have gutted the tourism industry and left the airport and hotels as ghost towns.

El Al planes seen at Ben Gurion International Airport, file (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Hundreds of El Al employees protested management’s decisions on Thursday at Ben Gurion International Airport after negotiations between labor representatives and company executives broke down the day before.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced an NIS 10 billion ($2.8 billion) package to stabilize the economy amid damage caused by the coronavirus crisis and to “allow the economy to continue to function.”

In its latest report to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on Wednesday, El Al said it was preparing to cancel most flights in the wake of the new restrictions. It now expects losses of between $140 million and $160 million for the period of January through April 2020, double the expected losses in its report to the exchange two weeks ago.

The airline’s stock price has plummeted 34 percent since the start of 2019.

The company is reportedly set to request a government loan of $700 million to weather the crisis.

In addition to carrying passengers, the airline conveys around 35% of all of Israel’s aerial imports and exports. Around two-thirds of Israel’s exports are carried by plane, and around one-third of all imports.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Incoming Tour Operators Association said Thursday that it was completely halting its business operations. Around half of its 1,600 office workers would be laid off or suspended without pay, and next week the organization expects to axe another 30% of its employees.

The group said that some 4,000 tour guides it employs were already not working at all.

The Israel Hotel Association said on Thursday it expects to see industry losses of NIS 10 billion ($2.7 billion) and the dismissal of some 17,000 workers.

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