Traffic at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport Plunged 72 Percent in March, Figures Show

United Airlines boosts market share as Israel delayed quarantining arrivals from U.S. because Netanyahu didn't want to offend Trump

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Ben-Gurion International Airport emptied of travelers in the time of coronavirus.
Ben-Gurion International Airport emptied of travelers in the time of coronavirus. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yoram Gabison
Yoram Gabison

Ben-Gurion International Airport was emptied of travelers in March as the coronavirus lockdown gradually put a virtual end to air travel. But United Airlines succeeded in increasing its market shares, thanks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Figures released by the Israel Airports Authority on Monday showed that traffic through Israel’s main international airport plunged in March to just 472,000 people, 72% of the traffic in the same month last year. That decreased first-quarter traffic by 23% year on year.

The number of incoming flights dropped 56% in March from a year earlier to 2,510, dragging down the first quarter total to 13,312, a decline of 15% over last year.

Severe restrictions of air travel, including a mandatory quarantine on passengers arriving in Israel, caused overall tourism arrivals to drop to just 87,000 in March, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported earlier this month. That compared with 456,000 the same time in 2019.

The Israel Airports Authority said El Al Airlines, which halted all passenger flights March 26 and is seeking government aid, saw its traffic fall even more – a 74% drop to 111,000 last month as its market share fell to 23.5% from 25.1% a year ago.

Among Israel’s other airlines, Israir saw its passenger numbers drop just 57% year on year in March to 22,000, enabling it to boost its market shares to 2.9% from 1.9%. Arkia, on the other hand, suffered a 91% drop to just 3,500 passengers. Its market shares shrunk to just 0.73% from 2.3% a year earlier.

America’s United Airlines was the chief beneficiary of the bad situation. Airport authority figures show that its traffic dropped just 34%, which means that its Ben-Gurion market share more than doubled to 7.1% in March from 3% a year earlier.

United was able to defy the worst of the coronavirus-induced decline in air traffic due to a decision by Netanyahu not to impose self-quarantine on travellers arriving from the U.S. long after it was ordered for arrivals from other countries out of concern such a step would offend U.S. President Donald Trump.

As a result, U.S. traffic was down a relatively modest 40% year on year. The United States accounted for 16.1% of all the passenger traffic going through Ben-Gurion in March, compared with 7.5% a year earlier.

Traffic from Britain was also down a relatively small 58% in March, accounting for 8.5% of the total, versus 5.7% the same time in 2019. For a few countries, traffic was actually slightly higher – 3% for Moldova to 2,900.