Pressure grows to reopen Israel's skies

Ben Gurion Airport  / Photo: Matan Portnoy, Globes , Globes

The Israel Airports Authority wants to set up a testing laboratory at Ben Gurion airport but the Health Ministry opposes the plan.

The pressure is growing to reopen Israel's skies. The authorities responsible for any decision are the National Security Council, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Transport, which includes the Israel Airports Authority and above them all Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will of course make the final decision. Proposals have already been drawn up but the much wished for final plan, which would bring Ben Gurion airport back to life, has yet to emerge.

One of the aims of any plan would be to bring some relief to the hundreds of thousands of people dependent on the tourism and aviation industries by reopening Israel's borders to foreign citizens and suspending the need to undergo 14 days self-isolation when returning from abroad. Any change would need to be backed up by testing.

Ben Gurion airport workers committee chairman Pinchas Idan met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday and he sounds optimistic. He said, "The prime minister has promised that in the next few days he will work to help us. This is the first time in this difficult period that we are going through and I see light at the end of the tunnel."

Idan told "Globes" that last July over two million passengers passed through Ben Gurion airport compared with 50,000 this year.

Minister of Transport Miri Regev is promoting a plan through a joint team with the Ministry of Health that will "allow a return to routine under the shadow of coronavirus."

The plan first involves distinguishing between red and green countries with passengers from green countries where infection rates are low only required to undergo five days self-isolation after landing while passengers from red countries with a high rate of infection like Israel will also be required to take a Covid-19 test.

Regev's spokesperson said, "The Ministry of Health is examining the plan submitted for approval and is soon expected to convey its professional response so that the final plan can be formed and flights can start operating despite the coronavirus."

The Ministry of Health said, "The (Ministry of Transport) plan is being discussed and we must take into account that it is very complicated to implement and we prefer simple solutions."

The color of a country is no longer relevant

Some in the tourism sector have described the plan presented by Regev as impractical and think that the solution will come through setting up testing stations at the airport, as is already being done in many airports around the world including Jordan and Lebanon while Germany is among many European countries setting up airport testing labs. The Israel Airports Authority will soon be issuing a tender for the establishment of a private laboratory within the airport. The model being formed would include the requirement to be tested in a private medical center less than 72 hours before a flight. The passenger would then need to present a certificate that they had tested negative before boarding the flight and again before entering their destination. A second test would be undertaken after landing and passengers will wait until the results come through.

The aim is for test results to come through quickly thus making self-isolation superfluous. So every passenger will have an app with the results which would serve as a type of medical visa.

The lab to be set up at Ben Gurion airport would also check those coming into Israel. Incoming passengers would be directed to one of about 100 testing stations and nobody would be delayed for more than 15 minutes. The drop in passenger traffic will speed things up. If 24.5 million passengers passed through Ben Gurion airport in 2019, 10 million would be an optimistic forecast for 2021.

Results would come through no more than 12 hours after the passengers have left Ben Gurion airport. Tests carried out before takeoff and after landing would replace the need to self-isolate, which is delaying the desired reopening of the skies, especially for business travelers.

In addition to setting up testing at Ben Gurion airport, testing within Israel would have to become more affordable. The Ministry of Health does not provide tests for people traveling abroad who must go to private clinics and pay hundreds of shekels. Another obstacle is that travel insurance that includes coronavirus coverage is difficult to obtain for people in risk groups.

Travel insurance will also be needed to cover the cost of cancelled flights if a passenger tests positive for Covid-19 before flying or when reaching their destination.

In short travel is about to become much more expensive with each Covid-19 test likely costing $100 but possibly dropping to $20-30 as technology improves. Travel insurance will also be more expensive as will the flights themselves.

One tourism market source said, "The world has gone crazy and it is right to define every country as red. The approach has to be towards a medical passport for each passenger and not the passport of whatever country they come from."

The vision of a laboratory at Ben Gurion airport is ready but the Ministry of Health is in no rush to implement it. The Ministry of Health told "Globes," " In most places in the world testing laboratories are not set up at the airport."

Tourism sources say that in every meeting on the subject, the Ministry of Health strenuously opposes any outsourcing of testing to private companies and does not understand that the opening of the skies can only be achieved through the involvement of the private sector in testing.

Medical insurance company DavidShield founder and president Alon Ketzef has been promoting the idea of a private testing clinic with MyHeritage since March and the plans are now complete. He said, "We are lagging three months behind the rest of the world." From when Ketzef gets the green light it would take three months to set up the laboratory.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 27, 2020 © Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Ben Gurion Airport  / Photo: Matan Portnoy, Globes , Globes
Ben Gurion Airport / Photo: Matan Portnoy, Globes , Globes
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