Israelis flock to airport ahead of planned shutdown of flights

Some 5,000 leave the country Thursday; airlines said refusing to reimburse passengers whose tickets will become unusable by fresh restrictions

Illustrative: Passengers at Ben Gurion International Airport during a nationwide lockdown, on September 24, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Illustrative: Passengers at Ben Gurion International Airport during a nationwide lockdown, on September 24, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

As Israel headed into a planned transition to a full coronavirus lockdown that would nearly shutter the entire nation, thousands of travelers passed through Ben Gurion Airport Thursday on what were perhaps some of the last tickets out of the country before the airfield is largely closed down again.

Some 5,000 people were taking flights out over the course of the day, Hebrew media reported.

There were 12 flights to Greece and another nine flights to Turkey, according to the Ynet website.

A further 4,000 people landed on return flights.

Many of those standing in line at check-in counters said they had quickly purchased tickets once it became clear that the government was going to order a strict lockdown, as it struggles to contain an ongoing surge in the pandemic that has seen infection rates climb to over 6,000 fresh cases a day.

Those who spoke to media told largely the same story: If they are going to be stuck at home anyway, unable to see family or engage in recreation, then they may as well go abroad where they will be free to enjoy themselves a bit.

On Wednesday night the cabinet approved a tight lockdown, to begin Friday, that will nearly close the entire economy, keeping Israelis confined to within 1 kilometer of their homes and only allowed out for essential needs.

The cabinet is also reportedly considering closing Ben Gurion Airport to outgoing flights, but the decision was not included in Wednesday’s cabinet vote that authorized the lockdown.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi are expected to set an airport closure date for some time in the coming days, Channel 12 news reported.

Regev declared Thursday that flights scheduled over the next 24-hours would not be canceled.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev visits at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on August 13, 2020. (Flash90)

A closure of the airport would come barely a month after it was partially reopened for outgoing travel, following months of flights being at a trickle due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The High Holiday period, which began on Friday evening with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and which ends three weeks later with Simchat Torah — which marks the end of the Sukkot holiday — usually sees tens of thousands of Israelis book vacations abroad.

This year, some 120,000 were due to fly during the period, but at least half were expected to have to cancel their flights due to the lockdown, Channel 12 reported.

According to the network, airlines are refusing to reimburse passengers for tickets they will now be unable to use, and the government is girding for a wave of lawsuits from passengers.

On Tuesday, Channel 12 reported that due to a lack of synchronization between the Health Ministry and border control authorities at the airport, coronavirus patients are able to board flights without border officers knowing that they are infected. The situation enabled five confirmed carriers to fly abroad recently, the report said.

Last week the government ordered a three-week partial lockdown, but as confirmed infections continued to climb ministers this week decided to further clamp down on the country.

The harsh measures are set to come into force on Friday at 2 p.m., and will see nearly all businesses closed, prayers and public protests severely curtailed, public transportation scaled back dramatically and Israelis ordered to remain close to home with fewer exceptions than in the existing lockdown.

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