Europe's skies remained largely closed to business over the weekend, as gales of volcanic ash continued to blanket the continent.
Due to the disruptions to air traffic, which started last Thursday after a volcano in Iceland began spewing ash high into the atmosphere, 150 flights scheduled to leave Ben-Gurion International Airport for 30 destinations in Europe were canceled, leaving 30,000 travelers on the ground.
In total, of the 22,000 flights scheduled to take off from locations in Europe, only 6,000 departed. The air traffic interruptions are causing $200 million in damage a day, the International Air Transport Association estimated.
The Israel Airports Authority boosted its telephone hotlines due to the disruptions and the many calls from would-be passengers.
"Timetables have been disrupted all over Europe; countries have shut down all their airports. This affects Ben-Gurion, which is a hub for flights to and from Europe," said Kobi Mor, CEO of the Israel Airports Authority.
The disruptions have had an immediate impact on flight-related sectors of Israel's economy. The first to be hurt were the duty-free shops at the airport, whose sales are directly correlated with the number of travelers passing through. Duty-free operator James Richardson said the stores started to feel a sharp drop in sales yesterday.
"Thursday was still fine because almost no flights were canceled, and we didn't register a decline in sales that day," said Avi Ben-Hur, CEO of James Richardson Israel. "On Friday, the drop was relatively small, only 10%. Saturday saw a big drop in sales, because there were almost no flights leaving the airport. I spoke with the employees, and they told me there was no work. This is directly connected to the lack of flights. At this point, sales are less than half of what they would be on a typical Saturday."
Fortunately for the chain, Saturday is not usually a big sales day.
El Al, for that matter, has suffered relatively little damage compared to other airlines: only 50 of its flights have been canceled, amounting to approximately 10,000 passengers. One reason for this is that the company does not have regularly scheduled flights on Saturdays. In fact, El Al is expected to gain as its market share of flights to the Far East grows, at the expense of the European airlines.
El Al's subsidiary Sun D'Or canceled seven charter flights to Europe yesterday.
Air shipments of flower and spice exports to Europe have been halted entirely since Thursday, said the spokeswoman for agricultural exports company Agrexco.
Israel exports NIS 5 billion in agricultural products to Europe annually. Agriculture Ministry Director-General Yossi Ishay said it was too early to say how the flight interruptions would impact exports.
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