Israel’s Airlines Called on to Rescue Citizens Stranded All Over the World

But who gets flown and who pays for it depends on the country you’re in and the local coronavirus aviation policies

Hadar Kane
Hagai Amit
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Israeli airplanes on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport, March 10, 2020.
Israeli airplanes on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport, March 10, 2020.Credit: AFP
Hadar Kane
Hagai Amit

About a thousand Israelis were brought back home Thursday from Peru on four flights that cost a combined $1.2 million – most of the Israelis were young backpackers with limited funds.

One of the four flights was paid for by the government and the other three by donations to El Al Airlines from businesses such as the supermarket chain Shufersal, the big banks, food maker Strauss, tech companies like Google and Facebook, and private businesspeople.

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These Israelis were among those stranded around the world by the sudden freeze of the airline industry due to the coronavirus. Many Israelis have had to find their own way home at their own cost.

Round trip airfare between Peru and Israel is normally about $1,500. Israel’s Foreign Ministry had considered asking the stranded Israelis to make at least a symbolic contribution to their airfare.

In the end, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz decided that the state would cover the entire cost; he noted that many of the backpackers were newly released from the army and would be among the first called up to reserve duty, if necessary.

Still, his move has raised expectations among Israelis still stranded abroad that they, too, may be flown back at the government’s expense.

“We’ve had requests from hundreds of Israelis living abroad. Most of them have problems like having no Israeli passport, or children who hold only a foreign passport,” said Eyal Siso, the head of consular services at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

“Even Israeli citizens with an Israeli passport are finding it difficult to get here. Israelis who have been abroad longer and are more established know how to find their way back to Israel. For backpackers, it’s more of a problem,” he added.

“There’s also the problem of many people in Diaspora Jewish communities who are used to coming to Israel for Passover. We’ve received a lot of applications, mainly from religious people in North America. But they’re not citizens or the children of citizens, and we can’t allow them to come. If they do arrive, they will of course have to go into quarantine.”

The Foreign Ministry has to engage in rescue operations because many countries such as Peru, the Philippines, Guatemala and Honduras have suspended incoming air travel. Latvia has banned all commercial passenger flights and only allows cargo jets. Slovakia has barred outgoing flights, while Lithuania, Malta and Sweden are only permitting a very limited number of flights in and out.

As a result, many Israelis have not found a return flight home, keeping ministry officials busy in recent weeks trying to bring tens of thousands back home.

An Israir flight lands at Ben Gurion airport, Israel, May 28, 2015.Credit: Moni Shafir

Argentina, Moldova and others

One such case took place between March 16 and 20. At the behest of the Foreign Ministry, the Israeli airline Israir flew more than 2,000 Israeli medical students and expats from European countries such as Norway, Moldava, Lithuania, Ukraine and Romania.

They paid between $250 and $300 for their flights, but that didn’t reflect the true cost because in one direction the planes were flying empty.

In another instance, an El Al flight bringing nearly 300 Israeli travelers from India landed Saturday morning under an unusual arrangement. In this case, the defense electronics company Elbit Systems leased the jet from El Al through the company Transclal Fine Arts, which ships art as well as household goods. Transclal agreed to cancel a cargo flight from India to enable the stranded to return home.

Even in countries where flights are still continuing, bringing Israelis home isn’t always easy. Hundreds of Israelis are still stranded in South American countries such as Argentina and Brazil, where flights are still available but in limited numbers. In those countries, rescue flights have yet to be arranged; travelers need to find their own way to get home – and that can be expensive.

A week ago, for example, a one-way flight from Brazil to Israel cost 12,000 shekels ($3,320). If the return home involves a connecting flight, returnees may not be able to find a way home at all.

At least one travel industry source said the problem is not quite as big as it seems. “There really aren’t any Israelis trapped in South America,” said the source, who asked not to be named .”Many aren’t ready to pay the price for a return ticket – it’s just a matter of money. That’s all – they aren’t willing to be suckers whose post-army trip has been ruined.”

Empty check-in lines at El Al counters at Ben-Gurion InternationalCredit: Amir Cohen, Reuters

In just a few weeks, the coronavirus has created the biggest crisis in the history of the airline industry. Canceled flights have left planes grounded, saddled airlines with big losses and forced them to lay off employees.

The decision of carriers like Israir to help their home government arrange rescue flights is an act of generosity that may pay off later when they need state aid. Plus it’s in their interest to continue to operate at least some flights and generate cash flow.

Dvora Rosenblum said her family worked hard to arrange a flight for her son from Argentina. Via two connecting flights, the trip took 24 hours.

“About a month ago my son traveled to Brazil and from there to Argentina. On March 10, with no notice, Argentina announced it was closing its national parks, and rumors began circulating that Israelis were being told to leave hostels. At the beginning, my son and his friends were complacent,” she said.

“They wanted to stay and had all kinds of ideas like staying on a ranch instead of at a hostel. But back in Israel, we were seeing that flights from there were beginning to get canceled, and we urged them to come back,” she added.

A couple use their cell phones outside Jorge Newbery airport which is closed during the outbreak of the new Coronavirus, COVID-19, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 20, 2020.Credit: AFP

“We began by arranging a domestic flight from [the Argentine city of] Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, but we only found one that took seven hours instead of the usual two, because it was stopping to collect people from cities along the way just like a local bus. Since they weren’t allowed to stay at hostels, we rented him a hotel room next to the airport. In the end, together with a travel agent, we found a flight through Chile to New York and from there to Tel Aviv.”

Lucky Israelis in Lima

Rosenblum considers herself lucky because the flight cost her only $2,200 one way. Her son’s friends paid no less than $3,000 to return home.

She appealed for help from the Israeli Foreign Ministry but was told that because flights were still leaving Argentina she would have to make her own arrangements for her son.

“They recommended travelers to get out as quickly as possible. We asked the insurance company about help, and they told us that because it was only a recommendation and not a government directive, they wouldn’t pay the airfare,” she said.

“The difference is that in Lima they halted flights, so everyone, the Foreign Ministry and El Al, helped at no cost. In Argentina, it didn’t happen, so the responsibility fell on us. If we hadn’t paid he simply would have remained stranded.”

Passengers wait to board an international flight as an electronic billboard displays information on the "Novel Corona virus" at Berlin's Tegel airport, January 28, 2020.Credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP

In Europe, the situation is different. There, most Israelis asking to come home are students and want to return because most universities have canceled classes. Families are worried and prefer that under the circumstances their children return home.

Nitzan Levenberg, who is studying for a doctorate in sociology at the University of Edinburgh, only learned a few days ago that classes had been suspended, leaving her and other Israeli students adrift.

“Some of them decided quickly and took a train to London for a flight to Israel. My boyfriend and I took a little time to decide because we have a house here where we paid rent six months in advance and the cats need special permission to fly to Israel,” she said.

“We’ve started to look at flights, and there are fewer and fewer. If we keep on delaying our decision, the skies may be closed. My family is very worried and everyone wants us home. The big problem is we don’t know how much time it will be and where all this is going.”

The other side of this equation is the catastrophic state of the global aviation industry. Airlines are asking for government assistance and many carriers are destined to collapse.

In Israel, El Al’s request for a government guarantee on a $700 million loan has been received coolly by the Finance Ministry’s budget division. The airline has put 80% of its staff on unpaid leave and has laid off others.

An El Al-branded staircase at Ben Gurion International Airport, August 2017.Credit: Meged Gozani

Arkia, another Israeli airline, has put most of its staff on unpaid leave, suspended all international operations and is converting passenger jets to cargo use.

Israir has put 400 employees on unpaid leave but continues to fly twice daily to the Israeli resort town of Eilat, mainly for the benefit of residents and doctors, and to carry the results of medical tests. In addition, starting on Monday it will fly cargo planes twice a day to London.

Israir is also making rescue flights to European cities at $250 a ticket – a money-losing price for the airline because the planes fly empty on the way there. Still, Israir sees a benefit because the flights keep its planes from lying idle.

Many in the airline industry fear that if the situation continues they will be called on to fly large numbers of Israelis home.

“We’re losing money every day that passes and trying to find solutions, even partial ones,” said an executive who requested anonymity. “The situation is very difficult. I believe that we can continue this way at most until the end of May. If there is no government intervention, the airlines will fall apart.”

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