Transport Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina) on Tuesday morning told Reshet Bet radio that the State of Israel would have to compensate various airlines, most notably El Al, for the losses they have incurred because of the coronavirus.
Smotrich said: “The state will have to put its hand in its pocket and compensate the airlines. In El Al they’re talking about losses of about $50 million. If the state wants to maintain its aviation service – it has to help.”
Smotrich said the state should compensate the airlines, and revealed that discussions had already begun on the matter.
It should be noted that El Al is not owned by the Israeli government – it was privatized back in 2004 and is controlled by its shareholders. Today, El Al’s market value is estimated at slightly less than 400 million shekel ($117 million), and the company’s shares have fallen 18% since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. But should Yossi Taxpayer protect the investments of the top 1 percent of Israeli citizens?
In light of the Health Ministry’s order that Israelis returning from risk countries must stay 14 days in isolation from the date of their return to Israel, El Al’s management on Monday sent a letter to its employees to boost their morale at this difficult period.
“We are in the midst of a global event and it’s too soon to predict its entire impact,” CEO Gonen Ussishkin wrote. “At the same time, it can already be said with great confidence that this is testing the countries of the world including Israel, the aviation industry and El Al.”
“At this time, according to our estimates, there are more than 5,000 Israelis in Thailand who are due to return to Israel with El Al,” the CEO wrote. “Since the demand for these flights may be essentially one-way, we will make further commercial adjustments.”
Ussishkin also wrote: “We will do everything we can to fly the Israelis staying in Thailand and other Asian destinations, without endangering the air crews and in keeping with the guidelines.”
It is not clear, in this context, how El Al would be able to maintain an airlift for 5,000 Israelis (at least 10 flights) while obeying the 14-day quarantine demand of the health ministry. Something will have to give. And someone will have to pay, namely Israeli taxpayers, or, as the CEO put it: “Difficult days are ahead of us, and dramatic steps and painful decisions may be required.”
That last message was probably intended for the transport minister, and it went, essentially: pay up.
Last week, News 12 reported that El Al is extending its flight stoppage to several destinations in Asia due to the ongoing spread of the virus. As part of this, the airline announced the cancellation of flights to Beijing until April 24, and to Hong Kong until March 20. EL AL officials have pledged to help find alternatives for customers whose flights have been changed or cancelled.
Incidentally, this crisis couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for El Al, which, according to CEO Ussishkin, will be diverting the planes from their Asian destinations to its European and American routes, just in time for the lucrative Passover season.