May 14, 2020 / 9:53 AM / 14 days ago

Israel offers peek at new normal for air travel during pandemic

BEN GURION AIRPORT, Israel, May 14 (Reuters) - Arrive four hours early, in a mask and without any escort. Get checked for a fever, disinfect your hands, watch out for the fleet of robotic cleaners, and again disinfect your hands.

This is what passengers leaving Israel should expect to encounter, according to a pilot programme launched on Thursday, as air travel slowly returns to normal after weeks of very few flights.

The idea, Israel’s airport authority said, is to create a “coronavirus-free area” at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, which is already well-known for its rigid security.

Similar measures aimed at preventing contagion could be adopted by airports around the world, and Israel has been conferring about them with authorities in Europe and the United States, said Shmuel Zakai, Ben Gurion’s managing director.

Representatives from the French embassy, for example, were checking documents of French passengers at check-in so they would not have to enter quarantine after returning home.

“This kind of process we will see more and more,” Zakai said.

The challenge will be enacting policies that are not too much of a burden.

“We would like to see again the smiles on the faces of the children, the smiles on the faces of the passengers,” he said.

The new restrictions begin at the entrance to the terminal. Only boarding pass holders are allowed in and passengers are instructed to maintain social distancing. Check-in will be mostly digital to minimise interaction with airport staff.

Hygiene stations and cleaning machines will be ubiquitous.

Incoming travelers will face even more hurdles, but with tourists not allowed into Israel until the end of the month, those measures have yet to be decided, the authority said.

It is also trying to develop a platform to check in real time whether passengers have been tested for the virus or its antibodies.

Israel, with a population of about nine million, has reported 16,548 cases of the novel coronavirus and 264 deaths. With the new case rate levelling out, it has reopened shopping malls and markets and part of its educational system.

Reporting by Rami Amichay Writing by Ari Rabinovitch Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Gareth Jones

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