El Al signals mayday, as extraordinary virus warning jolts travelers, carriers

Israeli airlines, which have lost millions in recent weeks, say they weren’t given any heads up before Health Ministry recommendation for Israelis to refrain from all trips abroad

Israeli airline El Al planes parked at Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, Israel, on March 16, 2018. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Israeli airline El Al planes parked at Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, Israel, on March 16, 2018. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

El Al airlines warned that it and other Israeli carriers could collapse financially in a matter of “weeks” due to the Health Ministry’s increasingly stringent travel restrictions and warnings related to the coronavirus, according to a Wednesday report.

In an unprecedented move, the ministry on Wednesday advised Israelis to avoid all unnecessary travel abroad, warning that the contagion was already spreading out of control. In was the latest in a series of exceptional measures, not practiced by other countries, aimed at keeping Israel isolated from the deadly pathogen.

“It’s a catastrophe,” an El Al official told the Kan public broadcaster. “The airlines here will collapse within weeks. El Al, even before the Health Ministry announcement, sustained NIS 200 million ($50 million) in damages due to the coronavirus.”

“If the state doesn’t wake up there won’t be an airline here in a matter of weeks,” the person said.

The source spoke to Kan moments after the Health Ministry issued an advisory calling on Israelis to seriously consider refraining from travel abroad, as the country looked to isolate itself from the outbreak rapidly spreading across the globe.

Passengers wearing masks as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19 arrive to the Sao Paulo International Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (AP/Andre Penner)

“If you don’t genuinely have to fly — don’t do so,” the ministry said in a travel warning.

Another official in an unidentified airline told Channel 12 that his company was not given any notice ahead of the Health Ministry announcement. According to Kan, other government offices were also left out of the loop.

The Health Ministry statement advised the cancellation or delay of all international conferences and gatherings in Israel in the coming months, and to refrain from traveling to such events abroad, where the threat of contagion from multiple countries is high.

It urged Israelis to avoid travel to “events of a religious character at which people from many different nations gather together” — an apparent reference to the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, which falls in July.

The statement also expanded a previous travel warning for northern Italy to the entirety of that country and ordered all Israelis returning from Italy to a 14-day home quarantine, effective immediately.

As a result El Al announced that it was cancelling a flight to Milan scheduled for Thursday morning.

Israel has already banned the entry of any foreigners who have been to China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand Singapore, South Korea and Japan in the 14 days prior. As a result Korean Air has suspended flights on its Tel Aviv-Seoul route until March 31.

In making the announcement Wednesday, Israel became 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 80,000 worldwide and claimed well over 2,000 lives, almost all of them in China.

The move came after a series of additional countries announced they had identified cases of the virus on their soil over the past two days, including Brazil’s announcement of the first confirmed case in Latin America and uncontained outbreaks in Germany, Italy and other European countries.

Tuesday marked the first day since the start of the outbreak that more new cases were recorded globally than in China, which has been the epicenter of the epidemic.

Passengers wearing protective masks walk through the arrival hall of Ben Gurion Airport on February 22, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Israeli officials said the new reports of coronavirus cases in Greece, Austria, Switzerland and Croatia, all announced over the past two days, appear to have arrived in those countries from travelers originating in Italy.

Other hotspots have been identified in South Korea and Iran.

Israel’s Health Ministry has taken an active approach to combating the spread of the virus here, going far beyond other countries in banning visitors from several countries and forcing returning Israelis from those nations into self-quarantine.

The ministry has faced criticism for this, with some saying it is unnecessarily panicking people and causing economic and diplomatic damage to the country.

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told Channel 12 news that the ministry preferred to take harsher measures now than be sorry later.

On Monday the Finance Ministry said the virus could cause up to a one percent drop in Israel’s economic output as stocks around the globe plummeted over fears surrounding the outbreak.

The ministry estimated that the spread of the disease is likely to cause at least a quarter of a percent in damage to the economy. The expected shortfall amounts to between NIS 3.6 billion ($1 billion) and NIS 14 billion ($4 billion).

The estimates do not include the possibility of a “nightmare scenario” of a widespread, destructive outbreak in Israel, the Globes business daily reported.

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