Ben Gurion Airport Nir Kafri 13.9.2010
Passengers waiting at Ben Gurion International Airport, September 13, 2010. Photo by Nir Kafri
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Thousands of stranded passengers milled helplessly as air traffic to and from Ben-Gurion International Airport shut down yesterday from 9 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon, as Israel Airports Authority went on strike. The strike threw the flight schedule into disarray, and disruptions caused by the shutdown are likely to ripple into today, as carriers forced to cancel flights to and from Israel find solutions to transport their passengers.

Passengers who landed from abroad at Ben-Gurion Airport yesterday morning had to leave the airport without their luggage, as the Airports Authority union stopped workers from unloading cargo from planes. The Airports Authority recommends that passengers forced to leave the baggage behind call the airline, or the airport hotline for information. The airport hotline number is 03-9755555 from fixed-line phones, or *6663 from mobile phones.

In any case, they will probably have to return in person to get their luggage, the authority warns. It has attempted to make luggage recovery more convenient: Passengers returning for bags should enter Terminal 3 on the ground floor. Opposite a flower shop is a passage for workers to the restricted area inside the terminal. There the bags will be. Passengers must bring their tickets, passports and luggage tags (usually stuck to the passport ) to get their suitcases.

'Holding us hostage'

Further information may be available on the Airports Authority website, at www.iaa.gov.il, though as of press time last night, the site was down.

Antitrust Authority figures indicate that 45 scheduled takeoffs were affected - canceled altogether or delayed. The financial damage to the airlines and passengers must have come to millions of shekels, say industry insiders.

Arie Geva of Herzliya was supposed to fly with friends to Uzbekistan yesterday. They reached the airport at 10 A.M. and an hour later had no idea if they'd be flying out at all. There were no representatives of the airline or airport to talk with, he said. "We decided to wait, because we were afraid that if we went home, the flight would leave at some point without us, and then we'd lose our money," he told Haaretz.

Geva and his friends - and the thousands more thronging the terminal - waited patiently in line at the check-in, which did not advance at all for hours on end.

"I think holding a strike during the holiday ... is thuggery," said Geva. "If they want to strike, that's their right. But they shouldn't do it during the holiday, or shut down the airport. They were holding us hostage. That isn't legitimate."

Security forces reported no particular incidents, other than a group of Bratslav Hasidim who had returned from Ukraine after visiting the grave of Rebbe Nachman and were upset at not receiving their luggage. Police forces had to be summoned to calm the situation, though no arrests were made. Some of the Hasidim took the situation personally, however. "They waited for us to come from Uman to start the strike. They wanted an uproar, they wanted to provoke us," a young Hasid waiting at the taxi stand, without his luggage, said.

In fact, shortly afterward, the Airports Authority decided to unload the luggage from the plane from the Ukraine. The Hasidim waiting for taxis were advised of the change and ran back to the terminal to collect their bags.

That aside, never before has a wildcat strike passed so peacefully, airport veterans say. The arrivals and departures boards were no help to bewildered travelers: They indicated business as usual, because nobody was updating the information.

Rachel, 22, from Australia, is on a trip around the world, and yesterday morning was scheduled to fly home. She hadn't heard about the strike before reaching the airport, and said the airline had no information for her. What upset her most was the uncertainty: Would they be stuck for hours, days or more.

The strike finally ended in the afternoon hours when the Finance Ministry and Airports Authority reached an accord on the issue at stake, which was securing the pension money of a certain group of workers. The parties decided that the chairman of the Airports Authority, Ovadia Eli, would be responsible for moving the pension money into a trust account within 60 days.