For many photojournalists, long-haul flights are a routine part of the job. On March 17, Sharon Pulwer experienced far-from-routine sights when she flew from Newark Liberty International Airport to see her family in Tel Aviv, aboard El Al Israel Airlines.
Both Newark and Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, usually busy international hubs, were quiet. Instead of rushed travelers, the few passengers there stood in pairs or alone. “Seeing with my own eyes the same sights in two airports that are almost 12 hours’ flight away from each other was surreal,” Pulwer said.
El Al’s flight from Newark to Tel Aviv is regularly packed. But on the March 17 flight, most passengers had three seats to themselves and were able to keep more than six feet from each other while wearing masks and gloves. Some passengers seemed worried and shifted uncomfortably if anyone sneezed or coughed. Many discussed the news. Others tried to keep things light and joked that they should enjoy the human contact and engage in as many conversations as they could before the mandatory 14-day quarantine for entering Israel.
The crew was kind and gave their best service while maintaining distance. They were trying to protect themselves while risking their health, with the added stress of knowing many of their colleagues were on unpaid leave. They worked through the 12-hour flight from Tel Aviv to New York, had 12 hours of rest in a hotel near the airport (that they weren’t allowed to leave) and then flew back. The three pilots announced before landing that this was their last flight before going on unpaid leave as well. Everyone on board, crew and passengers, was going through drastic life changes, and the sense of mutual understating was noticeable.
That same day, the airline reduced to four the number of international flights operating daily from New York, Paris and London. The company still operates flights to other destinations at a lower frequency. It carries them out in collaboration with the Israeli foreign ministry “rescue flights” designated to allow the return of Israeli travelers stuck in countries that closed their borders.
Because of the rising number of cancellations that followed Israel’s travel restrictions, the airline put 80 percent of its employees on unpaid leave, and hundreds of flight attendants were put on quarantine after working on flights that had confirmed coronavirus cases or returned from countries having severe outbreaks.
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