Holiday Traffic Takes Tel Aviv Airport Back to pre-COVID Levels, but Can It Keep Up?

On the day before Passover, understaffed Ben-Gurion Airport feels the squeeze of travelers keen to go abroad after two years of COVID

Omer Carmon
Omer Carmon
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Travelers crowd at the check-in desks at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Thursday.
Travelers crowd at the check-in desks at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Thursday.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Omer Carmon
Omer Carmon

On Thursday, 75,000 travelers were expected to pass through Ben-Gurion International Airport ahead of the Passover holiday, making it the transit point's busiest day since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Wednesday also saw a large volume of passengers, with 61,000 people passing through the airport. Officials at the Israel Airports Authority said that these numbers shocked them; they now estimate with 18 million passengers will have passed through the airport by the end of the year. This approaches pre-COVID numbers: In 2019, for example, 24 million people passed through Israel’s main gateway.

According to the authority, the leading destinations this Passover are Turkey, the United States, France, Italy and Greece. The companies carrying the highest number of passengers are El Al, Turkish Airlines, Israir Airlines, Wizz Air and Ryanair.

In order to keep the airport afloat, workers gave up their holiday vacations, retirees were brought in and airport director Shmuel Zakai arrived at work at 3 A.M. each day to help with security checks for the exhausted travelers. However, the massive manpower shortage and long waits at check-in counters due to COVID have made this mission close to impossible.

According to Zakai, “75,000 people a day is the number we saw in July and August 2019, but with much less manpower available.” He admitted that the Passover hysteria caught management unprepared: “We didn’t anticipate the sudden increase in numbers; we thought it would be a much more gradual recovery from COVID."

The average waiting time for check-in on Wednesday was one hour. It was expected to be longer on Thursday. To the credit of airport employees and travelers, most passengers told Haaretz that they were satisfied with the orderliness at Ben-Gurion. In the hours spent in the terminal, they noted no incidents of shouting or pushing.

The commotion at the airport was expected to increase over the weekend, when travelers would not be able to arrive or depart using public transportation. Many taxi drivers were expected to remain at home, spending the holiday with their families. Trains will halt operations on Friday afternoon, and will only partially resume on Saturday night.

“Ben-Gurion Airport is the gateway to the country, and it’s unacceptable that the only way to get there at night and on the weekend is by taking private cars,” said a senior official at the Airport Authority. On Friday night, during the Passover seder, "there will be no taxis, buses or trains here, but planes will continue to land and take off. There is no situation like this anywhere else in the world.”

'Employees needed to go from zero to 100'

Ben-Gurion Airport was almost completely empty for two years. In March 2020, the airport employed 4,000 people. Currently, there are only 3,000. The Netanyahu government’s policy of furloughing employees led most of the airport's security and operational workers to cut their ties with their employer and find new jobs.

But in early March, it seemed that Israelis no longer feared the coronavirus and were hurrying to book Passover trips overseas. By then, it was too late to recruit new workers and train them in time. The manpower shortage is also palpable at the check-in desks for particular airlines, which are also feeling being strained by a lack of employees and having difficulty hiring and training new staff.

A traveler by the check-in desks at Ben-Gurion International Airport, as many countries were designated 'red' amid the omicron variant spread in December.Credit: Eyal Toueg

An official from the labor union said that they warned from the outset of the pandemic that Airport Authority employees should not be put on unpaid leave. "We explained to the state that it was paying for unemployment in any event; the right move would be to transfer salaries to the Airport Authority and leave employees in the system. They would come to work once a week but still feel committed to their jobs. Unfortunately, they didn’t listen to us. You need about two months to train security personnel. This is how we lost Passover.”

Zakai believes that the exodus of Israelis abroad is spurred both by travelers missing these destinations and the high cost of hotels in Eilat. He said that in addition to the manpower shortage, the long lines are caused by airlines' demands that passengers present vaccine certification and COVID tests. "In 2019, 50 percent of travelers checked in online, and their average waiting time at the counter was two minutes," Zakai explained. "Now, given the requirement to present COVID documents, the average time is eight and a half minutes.” Moreover, the Health Ministry has seized 30 percent of the check-in desks for reviewing COVID tests or proof of recovery, which also hampers airport operations.

“My people had almost no work for two years, and now they have to go from zero to 100," said Zakai. “Obviously, it would have been better to avoid this crisis, but we’ve encountered an unexpected problem, and we’re doing everything we can to solve it. We’ve hired and trained hundreds of workers. I realize that travelers aren’t interested in our problems and want to travel in comfort, but there are no shortcuts."

Zakai is in charge of the airport's COVID protocols, and serves as a member of the governmental coronavirus cabinet. Throughout the pandemic, he often had to contend with strict requirements stipulated by the Health Ministry, but he now believes that all sides have learned how to work with each other well. “We’ve gone through two awful years," he said. "There were many arguments about COVID, but I think that everyone learned that we need to stay humble. I can’t tell doctors what to do, but they can’t tell me how to run an airport, either. When you put aside your egos, things start working.”

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