Israel's closed skies

Passengers at Ben Gurion Airport Photo: Eyal Izhar

As Israel shuts the door on Europe, many expect the US will be next, with Covid-19 spreading across North America.

The coronavirus is generating a tsunami in the global civil aviation sector. New records are being set weekly, with the crisis being described as the worst in the sector for many years. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) projects the losses of airlines from the crisis at $113 billion.

Passengers abandoning flights at the last minute before takeoff

Israel's Ministry of Health called a press conference last week, at which it added more countries to the list of destinations from which passengers entering Israel require 14 days of isolation. The new countries added to the list were Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France, and Spain.

Following the addition of Italy to the list last month, which was regarded as a game changer, the addition to the list of Israelis' favorite European destinations, which are also a major source of incoming tourism, is an earthquake.

The press conference was held at the precise time when an easyJet flight to Berlin was about to take off. The telephones of the passengers on the flight had not yet been put in in-flight mode, and the news about the isolation requirements led some of the passengers to disembark from the plane before it took off. A wave of passengers decided that it was not worthwhile traveling to Berlin for a few days and then being in isolation for two weeks upon their return; they grabbed their trolleys and left. At one stage, a stewardess had to announce, "Following the news published in the Israeli media that you will have to remain in isolation when you return to Israel, there are passengers here who prefer to get off the plane. There are others, like me, for example, who prefer to fly to Berlin. Behave like responsible adults, and decide whether to fly or get off the plane."

It is likely that this scene occurred on other flights. Passengers arriving at the airport did an about-face and returned home. The threat of isolation is deterring many passengers more than the risk of infection in the target country, especially for self-employed people whose business would be severely damaged by such a quarantine.

Closed skies

Israel's skies, which had been opened, with 140 different airlines operating flights to Israel, are now being closed. The already poor demand plummeted with the addition of five Western European countries to the quarantine list. In addition to concern about isolation, the fact that foreigners cannot enter Israel from these countries is preventing tourists from visiting.

It was only a matter a time before airlines realized that they had to cancel their routes to Israel. The last time such dramatic measures were taken was when missiles were fired at Ben Gurion Airport. This is an extreme and dramatic decision, although a necessary one. An empty plane, as many pictures and clips on the social networks in recent days show, is both a depressing sight and a huge financial loss.

Lufthansa was the first to officially announce the cancellation of at least 70 weekly flights (including by Swiss International Air Lines and Austrian Airlines). Ryanair announced the cancellation of dozens of flights on routes to Germany, Italy, and France, as did Wizz Air. Iberia Airlines is canceling its flights to Spain, Air France is canceling Israel-France flights and there will undoubtedly be others.

The result of the closing skies is that El Al Airlines is now the only carrier flying to a string of European destinations, but El Al is also cutting back on its flights by the day. In normal times, having a monopoly on a route is an ideal situation, but not now. Thousands of Israelis and thousands of tourists have been stranded by the immediate cancellations of their flights. El Al can continue flying on these routes in order to bring Israelis home and return tourists to their homes, but when this task is completed, it will have to halt these routes, as it has had to do with its route to Bangkok, which operated on a small scale until there was no longer any demand for it.

The lists

In which lists is Israel included? Every country has its own lists: some more stringent and some more lenient. The list contains "infected" countries from which entry is banned, and most countries now include China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy on their list.

Israel's list includes 19 countries. Foreigners coming from these countries, or who spent time there, cannot enter Israel.

The airlines' websites tell passengers in which countries they are unwanted. Spanish airline Iberia informs passengers that the countries they cannot enter are Israel, the Solomon Islands, and Nauru. "These are the only countries that are denying entry to passengers arriving from Spain," the website states.

An even worse possibility is if the countries to which Israel has closed its gates (such as Germany, France, or Spain) retaliate by doing the same to Israel.

Tourists: "Isolation? What are you talking about?"

Two days after the Ministry of Health issued orders for retroactive isolation of people from these European countries, groups of tourists circulated freely in Tel Aviv. At the Clock Tower plaza in Jaffa, a well-known meeting place for tourists, a group of several dozen tourists from Dusseldorf appeared.

A friend who met the group began talking to them, and told one of them that they should be in isolation. "What isolation? What are you talking about?" was the half-surprised, half-suspicious response to this unexpected message from a passerby. "We have no idea what you're talking about," another traveler said. "Why should we go into isolation?"

The instructions to tourists are causing great confusion, with people treating tourists like lepers. But how can thousands of tourists visiting Israel be told that they must spend their vacations inside four walls?

According to the Israel Population and Immigration Authority, there are currently 8,000 tourists from these countries in Israel who are supposed to go into isolation. How many of them are doing it? How many of them are aware of the instruction? The Ministry of Defense has closed off Bethlehem. Many of the tourists in Israel include a visit to Bethlehem in their organized tour. The result is that someone who visited Bethlehem is required to leave Israeli immediately, and is sent to Ben Gurion Airport.

The Israel Incoming Tourism Bureau recommends that tour organizers revise their tour plans to exclude Bethlehem "in order to avoid this nightmare." Incoming tourism has lost 70% of its volume so far.

Will the coronavirus conquer the US?

In civil aviation, all eyes, with an emphasis on El Al, are on the US. After one coronavirus death in California and the spread of the disease, 236 US residents have been infected and 15 of them have died. There is a great fear that entry and exit from the US will be blocked.

The materialization of such a scenario will be a critical blow to El Al, many of whose routes are to North America, including New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, and San Francisco, with Chicago slated to join them (a launch very likely to be postponed).

Combined with Europe, which is now being closed, and East Asia, which has already been closed, a reduction in flights to the US is a very bad possibility for El Al. This is not longer out of the question, given the extra caution being exercised by the Ministry of Health in adding more countries to the isolation list. Will the political situation allow closing Israel's gates to is best friend?

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 8, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Passengers at Ben Gurion Airport Photo: Eyal Izhar
Passengers at Ben Gurion Airport Photo: Eyal Izhar
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