Smotrich says country should compensate El Al losses due to coronavirus

"The state will have to put its hand in its pocket."

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the state must compensate Israeli airlines for growing losses incurred due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, describing their financial integrity as a "national interest."
"I think the state will need to put its hand into its pocket, as they do in other national crises, including natural disasters," Smotrich told Kan Reshet Bet on Tuesday, emphasizing that financial support is required for those harmed by "justified" but "severe" government measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
National flag carrier El Al has incurred losses of approximately $50 million to date due to flight cancellations, Smotrich said, with losses "likely to continue and grow" as airlines approach the profitable Passover holiday and summer period. Without government support, he said, the country is likely to find itself without airlines "within a number of months."
Heeding government instructions and reduced demand, El Al has halted all flights to Beijing and Hong Kong. Non-stop flights to Bangkok have also been severely reduced following the worsening of the epidemic. The airline is currently scheduled to inaugurate non-stop flights to Tokyo on March 11.
Passenger demand has continued to fall after the Health Ministry widened requirements for self-quarantine to nationals returning from Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao, as well as China.
"Israelis are simply not flying abroad, it doesn't matter to which country. They are afraid that once they fly, they will be unable to return," said Smotrich.
On Monday evening, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin told employees that he foresees “difficult days ahead, and it is possible that we will be required to take dramatic steps and make painful decisions."
Usishkin made his comments via an email sent to company employees, shortly after the airline notified the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange that the company was adapting its operations to the Far East following the new Health Ministry regulations.
According to El Al estimates, there are more than 5,000 Israelis currently due to return to the country from Thailand. According to an agreement between the airline and the Health Ministry, flight crews operating the route will not be required to enter isolation upon returning to Israel, but should refrain from contact with locals during overnight stays in Bangkok.
On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said that plans are underway to bring 12 Israelis, who remain quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan, back to Israel. The Israeli nationals are expected to return home on Thursday.

Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this article.