Israel’s plan to ‘open skies’ for air travel seen as not ready for takeoff

Despite declaration flights to some countries would resume on August 16, Coronavirus Committee learns the plan’s still stuck at the gate; ‘Date is far from reality,’ official says

Parked airplanes at Ben Gurion International Airport on August 8, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)
Parked airplanes at Ben Gurion International Airport on August 8, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Lawmakers and others are pouring cold water on a supposed plan to see air travel to and from the country ramp back up next week, saying that the scheme is half-baked and based on the faulty premise that Israelis will be allowed into other countries, or other tourists will be welcomed here.

Air travel has been at a trickle for months with Israel more or less closed to foreign nationals since March and nearly all countries barring Israelis from visiting.

Last week the so-called coronavirus cabinet of relevant ministers said a proposal would be put together by Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to “reopen the skies” on August 16 to a greater number of incoming and outgoing flights.

But senior figures are warning that Israelis should not start packing their bags yet.

“Unless there is a miracle the skies will not open on Sunday, it is not clear why they set that date. It is far from reality,” a senior Health Ministry official told Channel 12 news Monday. The official was not named in the report.

Israel has one of the highest morbidity rates in the world per capita and many countries, including the European Union, currently ban visitors from there. Only countries that have more lax entry requirements, such as Brazil, the US, Mexico, Kenya and others allow in Israelis, though in some cases they must still present negative COVID-19 tests or quarantine upon entry.

Israel still bans entry for all non-nationals and requires everyone who enters the country, including Israelis, to quarantine for two weeks.

While the creation of a joint travel bloc with other countries has been shelved due to the resurgence of the virus in Israel, talks of reopening borders and allowing in tourists and others has ramped up in recent days, along with hopes that Israelis can soon easily travel abroad.

Independent business owners from the tourism sector protest in Jerusalem on June 30, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday, the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, which oversees the country’s handling of the virus outbreak, heard that the relevant authorities have yet to formulate a plan for the resumption of travel.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset coronavirus committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

At the meeting, Health Ministry and Foreign Ministry representatives declined to specify the list of countries that Israelis may be able to travel to under the plan.

“Don’t say that the skies are opening because they are not and air travel is not resuming, and we are kidding ourselves,” committee chair Yifat Shasha-Biton berated ministry officials.

According to Channel 12 news, a framework plan will be presented to the committee later this week. The plan will reportedly include classifying countries based on morbidity levels there and formulating different procedures for those coming from those places.

Transportation Minister Regev has asked government coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu to prepare a plan to allow Israeli travelers to visit countries with higher infection rates, while ensuring they undergo virus tests before they leave and after returning, combined with a shortened quarantine period, the station said.

The empty arrival hall at Ben Gurion Airport on June 12, 2020.
(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Many countries currently demand that arrivals show a negative coronavirus test from 72 hours prior to their flight. In order to accommodate this requirement, a coronavirus drive-through testing lab is being planned for outgoing travelers at Ben Gurion Airport. Passengers will be required to come by the airport 72 hours prior to their flight to be tested.

Passengers will pay for their tests, with costs estimated at several hundred shekels per test.

A tender for building and operating the lab was published last week by the Israel Airports Authority. Applicants are required to be able to carry out 800 tests an hour and to provide results within 14 hours.

When flights resume, crews on planes are expected to wear protective gear, and it is not yet known if meals will be served.

Health Ministry figures on Tuesday morning showed that there have been 85,324 cases of coronavirus in Israel since the start of the outbreak earlier this year, with 619 deaths.

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