Israeli travel agents were inundated today with desperate phone calls from tourists stranded in the country and Israelis stuck overseas after most international airlines announced on Tuesday that they were temporarily suspending flights to Ben-Gurion International Airport.
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“The whole industry is on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” said the manager of a big travel agency in Tel Aviv, who asked that he not be quoted by name.
All the Israeli air carriers – El Al, Arkia and Israir – are continuing to operate flights on schedule. In addition, according to the Ministry of Tourism, 22 foreign airlines are continuing flights to Israel, among them British Airways, Aeroflot and Ukrainian Airlines. Although all the American airlines, as well as major European airlines, have suspended flights to Israel, the ministry reported that 209 flights were scheduled to take off and land today at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
The international airlines suspended flights to Israel after a rocket launched from Gaza on Tuesday hit a building in Yehud, a town right near the airport.
The Tourism Ministry also said it had opened a special situation room to offer solutions to travelers stranded in Israel and to make sure that none were left without accommodations.
Agencies around Tel Aviv said they were trying as best as they could to accommodate both Israelis and foreigners whose travel plans had been affected by the flight cancellations. When possible, travelers were being put on other flights that had empty seats or on new flights that the Israeli carrier El Al had added in wake of the international flight freeze.
Still, they noted, not all requests could be addressed as most of the flights still operating are booked almost to capacity at this time of year and the number of planes in El Al’s fleet is limited. Priority was being given, they said, to travelers willing to pay extra money for new bookings.
Israelis stranded in Turkey were in a particularly precarious situation, travel agents noted, since no Israeli airlines fly directly to Istanbul. Many of them were being put on flights from Istanbul to other destinations in Europe where they could board planes headed to Tel Aviv.
Since the decision to cancel flights to and from Israel was based on security considerations, defined as a force majeure, customers are not eligible for compensation for any of the expenses accrued as a result of delays in their travel plans. In other words, travelers forced to spend another few nights in hotels in Israel or overseas because their flights were canceled will not be able to sue the airlines or the travel agencies for damages. Still, some travel agencies reported that they were providing hotel accommodations for stranded tourists at their own expense.
According to Yossi Fattal, head of the Israel Travel Agents’ Association, “tens of thousands” of Israelis are now stranded abroad because of flight cancellations. “What we are advising travelers to do is simply buy a ticket on another airline that is flying to or from Israel in order to get to their destination quickly because the cost of sticking around and waiting for international flights to resume could end up being higher.”
Since 40 percent of the Israeli travel agency business is concentrated in two months of the year, July and August, the flight cancellations could deliver a severe blow to the industry, he estimated. “We are already seeing cutbacks and dismissals,” he said. “Nothing this dramatic ever happened before because the last time international airlines stopped flying to Israel was during the first Gulf War, and that was in the winter, which isn’t a peak travel season.”
Vered Schwartz, the marketing director of the Diesenhaus travel agency said she was confident that the international airlines would resume flights within the next day or two. “What many of the customers don’t understand is that it’s not our fault, and we also feel helpless,” she said. “We keeping pressuring the airlines but they can’t tell exactly when flights will resume.”
Her recommendation was that travelers should “take a deep breath” and consider extending their trips for a few days. Or as another travel agent put it: “People need to have some perspective. There are worse things than being away for an extra few days. You could also be in Gaza getting rockets fired at you.”