JERUSALEM: Passengers on an El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv will be tested for the coronavirus on the plane itself or before boarding on Thursday (Aug 5) to speed up procedures upon arrival in Israel, where infections are on the rise.
The Israeli airline announced the plan a day after Israel said travellers from the United States, like those from many other countries, would have to self-isolate for at least a week after landing at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport.
Israel hopes the new restriction will slow the spread of COVID-19 and discourage Israelis - foreign tourism to Israel is still largely banned - from flying abroad and risking higher exposure to the Delta variant that is fueling a surge of infections worldwide.
The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for the El Al passengers will be conducted in coordination with Israel's Health Ministry and the Femi and Xpres Check companies that have testing labs at New York's John F Kennedy airport and at Ben-Gurion, the airline said.
Representatives of the companies, rather than the carrier's crew, will administer the tests on the flight.
El Al noted the tests, a pilot programme, were not a substitute for those required for passengers from the United States and other countries up to 72 hours before a flight.
Arriving passengers at Ben-Gurion must also take a PCR test at the airport before leaving the terminal. The El Al passengers tested in-flight or before boarding on Thursday would be able to skip that step.
Israel closed its borders to tourists at the outset of the pandemic and has only allowed in a small number of foreigners in recent months.
El Al - which changed owners and management last year - and other Israeli airlines were hit hard, shutting most routes for 2020, while the local tourism sector has suffered.
Israel has banned travel to and from 14 countries, including India, Britain, Russia, Spain and Mexico.
El Al chief executive Avigal Sorek said it was clear the virus was here to stay in one form or another.
"We must not stop our lives," he said, adding steps were needed to live alongside the virus.
He said El Al would work on creative solutions to help open Israel up to foreign tourism in the future.
"We ask the decision makers in Israel to examine these measures and adopt similar solutions so that we can maintain a routine," Sorek said.