El Al grounded all flights to and from Israel from midnight Thursday until April 4 as it continues to struggle with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision followed a sharp decline in demand, concern for passenger and staff health and the need to reduce expenditures until the outbreak subsides, it said.
Flights on Thursday evening to Ben-Gurion Airport from New York JFK, Toronto Pearson, London Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle, as well as “rescue” flights for Israelis returning from New Delhi and San Jose, took off and landed as scheduled.
El Al said it would continue to operate rescue flights from destinations around the world in accordance with requests made by the Foreign and Defense ministries. It also would continue operating cargo flights to and from Israel, including the use of passenger airliners, it said in a statement.
Writing to employees on Wednesday, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin said the airline had formally submitted a request for financial assistance from the Finance Ministry, and the government would need to decide “whether it wants a national airline or whether it feels that aviation security is not an important or significant element of national security.”
A government loan of $200 million-$300m. would be sufficient to enable the airline to “recover and return quickly to regular operations,” he said. The alternative would be to lose a contribution worth NIS 2.5 billion to the national economy, he added.
El Al first warned of plunging revenues in mid-February as the coronavirus spread rapidly in East Asia and government restrictions impacted operations to long-haul destinations. On March 17, the airline confirmed that 5,500 of its 6,300 employees would be placed on unpaid leave until May 31.
On Tuesday, the International Air Transport Association estimated a decline of $113b. in passenger revenues for the worldwide aviation industry in 2020.
Many airlines are likely to run out of cash before any recovery arrives, with most of them possessing two months of cash at the start of the year, it said.