Israeli airline El Al has confirmed that it will be temporarily suspending all scheduled flights from tonight. The airline had previously announced it would be cutting some operations from the 15th of March. Tight entry restrictions in Israel have previously forced two other airlines to cease operating; both Arkia Israeli Airlines and Israir suspended operations earlier this month.
Israel’s flag carrier will officially be stopping operations from tonight. While this isn’t a surprise given the country’s travel restrictions, it is definitely a blow. The carrier was struggling before the spread of the virus caused havoc with international travel. It already has $2 billion of debt according to Bloomberg.
The airline has confirmed that it will go ahead with its scheduled flights tonight from New York, London and Toronto to Israel’s Ben Gurion airport. It will also operate repatriation flights from Delhi and San Jose. However, after midnight all further operations have been canceled until at least the 4th of April.
There are strict quarantine limitations in place across Israel which has now forced three airlines to temporarily stop operations. El Al has said a drop in demand and concerns for staff safety has led it to shut up shop until the virus has been contained. The question now is whether or not the airline can survive to reopen its doors to passengers.
On Tuesday, Israel’s transport minister Bezalel Smotrich said that the most likely option would be for the government to provide a loan to keep the airline airborne. It’s thought that an aid package from the government could be worth as much as $500 million. The airline has already had to cut jobs and reduce salaries.
The government has already been supporting the airline’s repatriation flights with financial aid. Any Israeli nationals have been able to buy a ticket for a regular price with the government subsidizing the airlines’ other costs.
However, Mr. Smotrich also said that the country may not recover quickly enough from the effect of the virus to warrant three airlines. There has been talk of merging El Al with Arkia and Israir for some time. When speaking to local media, Mr. Smotrich confirmed that there was the potential to merge the three airlines. The alternative, he said, would be to dissolve El Al.
A truly national carrier
It would be such a shame if El Al does not manage to recover from this setback. The flag carrier was established in the same year that Israel was recognized as a nation: 1948. It was always fully tied to the fate of the nation itself.
In a letter to employees on Wednesday El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin highlighted the seriousness of the situation saying “We’re approaching the point at which the state must decide whether it wants a national airline”.
Over 85% of the airline’s employees are currently on unpaid leave. As of tonight, that figure is set to rise.
Usishkin assured employees that a plan for the survival of El Al had been presented to the government. But now it seems as if the fate of El Al is in the hands of the Israeli government.