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Pilot program: El Al to try out inflight COVID-19 testing

Passengers on New York-Tel Aviv flight to be swabbed before boarding or during journey, enabling them to bypass testing at Ben Gurion Airport when they land

An El Al plane parked at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, April 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
An El Al plane parked at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, April 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel’s national carrier El Al will hold a trial for inflight COVID-19 testing on Thursday, in a plan that will enable passengers to skip the mandatory tests that all arrivals are required to undergo when they land at Ben Gurion Airport.

There have been numerous complaints about long and crowded lines at the airport, as arriving passengers wait to take their tests. These have sparked concerns that the conditions could facilitate the spread of the virus among the crowds.

The voluntary pilot program will be tried on an El Al flight leaving New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport at 2 p.m. local time, carrying about 280 passengers. It is being done in coordination with the Health Ministry and the Femi Premium company, which operates COVID-19 testing facilities at Ben Gurion, as well as XpresCheck, a US company that carries out testing at JFK.

XpresCheck will perform virus tests on passengers at the boarding gate before they get on the plane. Passengers who do not undergo tests before the flight can be tested on the plane.

Specially qualified personnel will perform throat and nose swabs while wearing personal protection outfits and disposable gloves — the latter replaced between passengers.

The tests will be placed in a culture used for transporting samples and stored in special refrigerated coolers during the flight. Each sample will be marked with a barcode to identify the passenger it came from. Passengers will be asked to provide details such as name, passport number, address, and telephone number, in order to inform them of the test results.

Tests will cost NIS 80 ($25) each for passengers who sign up for the program before the flight.

All travelers, including those who are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19, are required to self-isolate for 24 hours upon arrival in Israel, or for a shorter period if they receive a negative test result (starting August 11, arrivals from many countries, including the US, will need to isolate for a week, even if vaccinated).

Though the program enables travelers to avoid being tested at the airport, El Al stressed that the tests are not a replacement for the virus test all arrivals must undergo up to 72 hours before their flight.

Travelers arriving at Ben Gurion Airport on July 1, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In a statement Wednesday announcing the pilot, El Al said the method could be “a breakthrough for the entry of tourists into Israel in the future.”

“The aim of the project is to bring the flight experience back to one somewhat similar to the one we knew before the eruption of the coronavirus,” the statement said.

El Al CEO Avigal Soreq added: “It is clear to everyone that the virus is here to stay in one form or another and we must not put life on hold.

“El Al will continue to do everything in its power to develop creative and effective solutions for its customers” in order to open the country for foreign tourism that is a critical part of the economy, Soreq said.

Israel has seen a strong resurgence of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, which officials have blamed on the Delta variant of the virus brought back to the country by travelers who did not properly quarantine on arrival.

In recent days new daily virus cases have passed 3,000. As of Thursday morning there were 24,463 active cases in the county, of which 241 were in serious condition. In mid-June, there were just a few dozen being cases found each day.

Israel has begun reintroducing restrictions on public life to curb the outbreak while also urging people to get vaccinated under the national inoculation drive that has already given shots to over 55 percent of the population.

It has also started giving third booster shots to people over age 60, in a world-first.

On Wednesday Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said that a lockdown over the coming Jewish holidays is “a last resort” but could be implemented if coronavirus cases continue to rise.

Twenty-six Israelis have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of August, with 10 people dying on Sunday, the highest one-day figure since early April. The death toll since the start of the pandemic is at 6,503.

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