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Ending virus lull, El Al to restart some flights to US, Europe in October

A day after coming under new ownership, airline says move is part of a gradual return to operation; will also ramp up charter services and cargo flights

El Al airplanes parked at Ben Gurion International Airport, August 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)
El Al airplanes parked at Ben Gurion International Airport, August 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Israel’s national carrier El Al will restart some flights to international destinations in October, ending an unprecedented three-month shutdown which saw the flailing airline suspend passenger and cargo service, the company said Thursday.

The announcement came a day after the airline came under new ownership, with Eli Rozenberg, a 27-year-old New York-born yeshiva student, using his US-based father’s money to take a controlling stake in the carrier following a restructuring agreement meant to save the iconic business.

Scheduled flights to New York, London and Paris will begin on October 12 as part of a gradual return to operations, El Al said in a statement.

“The flights to these destinations will be carried out on the company’s Dreamliner planes” with tourist, premium and business class seats, the company said.

The statement noted that currently entry into Israel is still only permitted to those who have an Israeli passport, in accordance with government regulations aimed at holding back the virus from other countries.

In addition to the passenger flights, El Al will offer cargo services to Shanghai, Bombay, and Hong Kong from September 21 and charter flights to a limited number of European destinations.

From the beginning of October the company will provide scheduled passenger services to Athens.

El Al’s subsidiary Sun D’Or International Airlines will also begin to offer charter flights to a number of destinations in Greece and Croatia, via selected tourism operators in Israel, the statement said.

The empty Terminal 3 departure hall at the Ben Gurion Airport on August 17, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The already troubled airline has struggled to cope with a massive downturn in international travel wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. While some international travel has resumed, Israel still largely bars the entry of foreigners and quarantine requirements upon return have made flying abroad unpalatable for many Israelis.

The country is set to go into lockdown on Friday afternoon, though international travel will still be allowed.

The airline announced in July that it was suspending all flight operations, after having already drastically scaled back services in March. The lone flight it has operated since was a symbolic trip to the UAE carrying Israeli and US delegations to celebrate the establishment of open ties between the countries.

In a notification to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange about the restarted flights, El Al said it has 5,940 of its own staff and from its subsidiary companies that are on unpaid leave. The firm owes some $350 million to passengers whose flights were canceled because of the pandemic.

El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin at a Tel Aviv press conference, March 28, 2018. (Flash90)

El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin notified workers on Thursday that despite the plan to restart flights the company was extending unpaid leave until the end of October.

“It is important to understand that the return to activity will be gradual and in accordance with the commercial plan,” he wrote in a letter sent to staff.

In 2019, the airline flew 5.8 million passengers and 74,500 tons of cargo.

Rozenberg, who submitted the only bid for the ailing carrier through his Kanfei Nesharim company, bought a controlling 42.85% stake in the airline with a $150 million offering.

The cash for the transaction will come from Rozenberg’s father Kenneth (Kenny) Rozenberg, the founder and CEO of Centers Heath Care, a chain of nursing homes in the United States. Israeli citizenship is a precondition for ownership, but the younger Rozenberg has insisted to regulators that he, and only he, will be the new owner of El Al, and that it will be he, and not his father, who will be running the business.

Eli Rozenberg, the new controlling shareholder of El Al (Courtesy)

The Rozenbergs, Orthodox Jews from New York, have no known experience in the airline business. According to a report last month in Hebrew business daily Calcalist, Kenny was instructed by his rabbi to buy the Israeli airline.

The state, which had committed to buying any unwanted shares as part of a rescue package, bought some $30 million worth of shares for a stake that could equal between 12% and 15% of the company.

The share issue was part of a $400 million rescue package formulated by the Finance Ministry, consisting of government-backed loans for a total of $250 million with guarantees for 75 percent of the loan in case of defaults.

Shoshanna Solomon contributed to this report.

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