Over forty years of working at the Ben Gurion Airport didn't prepare Pinchas Idan, Chairman of the airport authority workers' committee, for the sight of the abandoned halls at the airport from the past few weeks. "This is a situation I do not know or remember. This terminal usually transports 25 million passengers a year. Seeing it empty, a ghost town, is traumatic". Following the global crisis of COVID19, most flights to and from Israel have been canceled. Half of the airport's employees been given furlough notices, and Idan is trying to minimize the damage as much as possible. Since the beginning of the crisis, the workers' committee is collaborating with IAA management, and the decisions, however painful, are made together, he said.
How is the general feeling among employees in recent weeks?
"My eyes see but do not believe, and my heart is broken. The terminal is usually pleasant, alive, breathing, operating, no room to pass between passengers, no seating because of the crowds. Today it is like a nightmare – everything is empty. Many of the workers are in a state of despair, uncertainty, and do not know when it will end. In normal times, this is recruiting season, when we take on new workers just before peak season. Instead, we are sending people home. It's grim and sad. "
How many Ben Gurion employees are currently at home?
"In the regular peak season, we reach about 6500 employees. Now, because of the situation, we have sent 3500 employees on paid leave. Up until now we haven't seen any layoffs. Instead, some employees have been instructed to take time off, and other regular employees work overtime. To understand the working situation, I'll give an example – on a regular working day, a tractor at Ben Gurion Airport needs about 40 liters of fuel. Today it only needs 5 liters."
How do you and the workers' committee deal with the situation?
"We try as hard as we can to deal with it together. We have never encountered such a crisis, but here we are, for good or for bad. Unfortunately, we've had to tell some of our workers to go home. You tell them the truth, with all the pain, with tears in your eyes, and you can hardly look at them. If the situation does not recover in the next two or three months, unfortunately, some of them will have to be laid off. Our committee understands the situation. They see that there are no flights, no work, no passengers, and that the halls are empty. "
Are there any disputes between the workers' committee and IAA management?
"We work with the management with excellent cooperation and make joint decisions. Every morning we gather to see where we can make cuts and how to get through the crisis, trying to reach a solution that can save the business. Everyone understands the situation and is aware of what is happening. The management isn't taking advantage of the situation, this situation is unfavorable for everybody, and I have no complaints. We pray together with them that the situation will pass quickly. We work in coordination with the management and receive full backing from the Histadrut. "
Many of the coronavirus patients in Israel contracted abroad and passed through Ben Gurion Airport. How do employees deal with the risk of getting infected?
"Right now, dozens of workers are in isolation following contact with patients. We demand that employees receive maximum protection. Unfortunately, a contract employee caught the virus, but that's our job. We can't just shut the business down and tell everyone to go home. Someone has to work. These are the risks, and this is our job, unfortunately. "
Do you see a looming crisis in El Al?
"My heart is with El Al employees and the workers' committee. El Al management should not take advantage of the situation. Take an example from our management, who every morning conducts situation and progress assessments together with the workers. Management must work together with the workers' committees and the Histadrut, and not take advantage of the situation and cut off the branch they are sitting on.
"They can reach a compromise, there is a responsible workers' committee, and there is a Histadrut that understands. You cannot tell if it will last two years or it will end for another two weeks."
Idan expects politicians to rise above the controversies and immediately set up a national unity government to address the situation. "An emergency or unity government should be formed, to mobilize everyone. Politicians should put their egos aside, let's get through the crisis. Does it make any sense to have an airport, pretty much the only gate of the State of Israel, that's closed, and we're playing politics, ego, and dignity? It's a shame and disgrace. It's worse than a war."
Brought to press with the help of the International Relations Division of the Histadrut