Expanded Quarantine Order Creates New Problems for Israeli Carrier El Al

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El Al's Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
El Al's Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

A day after the Health Ministry toughened its quarantine orders for people arriving from East Asia, El Al Airlines CEO Gonen Usishkin warned employees of difficult times ahead for Israel’s flagship carrier due to the coronavirus epidemic.

Usishkin estimated that more than 5,000 Israelis were in Thailand now who are scheduled to fly back with El Al. Since there is almost no demand for flights to the country, the carrier will be flying empty planes to pick them up.

Under the Health Ministry order, returnees from Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau are required to go into quarantine for 14 days either at home or at a medical facility, just like returnees from China. Until now, those returning from those areas had to remain at home only if they showed symptoms.

The problems on El Al’s Thailand route come a week after it suspended flights to Hong Kong and before that to China itself. The airline said it expected to suspensions to cost it about $30 million in revenue in the first quarter.

“We are in the midst of a global event whose impact is too early to predict. We face difficult days that may require drastic steps and painful decisions,” Usishkin said.

Meanwhile, Yossi Fattal, director of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association, on Monday reported that 10-15% of the groups that were scheduled to visit Israel over the next three months had cancelled.

“In the long term, it can be an opportunity for Israel. All the demand for [business] incentive tours and trips to Asia will have to be moved to other destinations. They’ll certain get moved to Europe and the United States, but some of them could end up coming to us,” Fattal said.

Fattal appealed to Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the Health Ministry director general, who has been quoted as saying that he is examining a ban of international conference sand conventions in Israel.

“Any attempt to prohibit entry to Israel based on the purpose of the visit and not the origin of the tourist isn’t reasonable,” Fattal said in a letter.

The widening quarantine order threatens problems beyond Israel’s tourism sector. The Manufacturers Association trade group warned on Monday that the ministry had not explained who would cover the cost of workers placed in quarantine.

Ron Tomer, the group’s president, noted that under Israeli law an employer is required to provide sick pay to his employee. But, he noted in a letter to Labor Minister Ofir Akunis, “Those who are in quarantine are not necessarily ill or in poor health. There doesn’t appear to be any legal basis for mandating that the business sector pay sick leave for the quarantine period, so workers must take the days from their annual sick leave quota. “

Meanwhile, the Israeli shipping company Zim said it was taking short-term measures to limit the impact of the coronavirus on its key intra-Asia and trans-Pacific routes. Together, they accounted for 60% of its revenues in 2018, or $1.7 billion.

CEO Eli Glickman said Zim had reduced service from China to the U.S., Israel and the Black Sea by 30%. It was also slowing ships’ speed to extend Pacific crossings to 12 days from 10. Glickman admitted, however, that such measures would only help for no more than two weeks, but he held out hope that activity in China was reviving.

“We estimate there’s been a 20-30% rate of return to work at factories in response to orders from the central authorities,” Glickman said. The problem, however, remains of finding tractor trailer drivers who can travel between regions in China.

With reporting by Sivan Klingbail and Yoram Gabison

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