By Steven Scheer, Michael Kahn and Tim Hepher
(Reuters) -Governments and airlines scrambled to lay on flights to evacuate thousands of tourists from Israel and repatriate the country’s citizens, as the industry faced a warning over insurance cover in the wake of weekend attacks.
Israeli flag carrier El Al said it would operate 12 extra flights on Wednesday and Thursday to and from Athens, Rome, Madrid, Bucharest, New York, Paris, Larnaca and Istanbul.
Its low-cost unit Sun Dor also plans rescue flights from Istanbul. El Al had already announced an additional flight from New York and six flights to and from Larnaca.
The latest move came as the combined death toll reported by both sides following the weekend attacks by Palestinian militant group Hamas and retaliatory strikes by Israeli forces reached more than 2,000 people.
Most foreign airlines have suspended or curtailed services, leaving passengers uncertain how to leave or reach the country and consular services struggling to keep up with demand for assistance, with priority given to those with missing relatives.
Israel’s parliamentary finance committee said late on Tuesday it would debate authorising state guarantees for providing war risk insurance for Israeli airlines.
The panel said insurance companies had indicated they were entitled to cancel cover with seven days’ notice. Airline executives said some cover was still available.
A senior official at insurance industry body Lloyd’s Market Association said Israel is not on a commonly used list of high-risk areas for aviation, but that it made sense for underwriters to seek to control their exposure given the escalating violence.
“Some have therefore given notice to amend terms and conditions,” Neil Roberts, head of marine & aviation, said.
British Airways said it would suspend flights to Tel Aviv after diverting a flight from London back to Britain shortly before it was due to reach Tel Aviv, citing security concerns.
In an unusual move, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky told reporters he had brought 34 Czechs back from Israel with him on his government plane after he stopped in the country on the way back from a conference in Oman.
The minister, who the Czech government said was the first foreign official to visit Israel since the attacks, did not rule out sending another repatriation flight to Israel.
Lipavsky arrived in Israel on Tuesday afternoon and landed in Prague early on Wednesday morning.
“I spoke to our citizens. They tried to contact the airlines several times, but couldn’t get through,” said Lipavsky.
Denmark said it would offer to evacuate its citizens as well as holders of permanent residency in Denmark from Israel and occupied Palestinian territories following the attack by Hamas.
The country is preparing to send a C-130 Hercules military transporter to Israel, a foreign ministry spokesperson said.
El Al, whose aircraft are equipped with laser-based anti-missile systems, said earlier this week it was handling many Israeli customers of foreign companies whose flights had been cancelled.
“We have increased flights in several hubs in the world and will continue to increase as much as we can.”
Some governments were also in discussion with airlines to mount special relief flights.
Lufthansa plans special flights on Thursday and Friday, people familiar with the matter said late on Tuesday, following negotiations between German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Washington remains in talks with U.S. airlines about flights to Israel.
Norwegian Air, which has suspended normal flights to and from Israel until Dec. 19, said it was organising an extra flight from Tel Aviv to Oslo to fetch Norwegian and other Nordic citizens.
A spokesperson for Dubai’s Emirates said it was reducing daily connections to Tel Aviv to once a day from three times daily “for operational reasons” and safety was its top priority.
Low-cost affiliate flydubai said it was halving flights.
But in neighbouring Abu Dhabi, Etihad Airways said it had resumed scheduled services on Wednesday and remained in contact with authorities and “security intelligence providers”.
Passengers have complained of mounting costs especially for leaving Israel, but airlines deny driving up prices.
El Al said it was looking to keep prices low for reservists looking to fly back into Israel, with the highest fare topping $900 from the United States.
However, one-way commercial flights out of Israel to places like London and New York were in the thousands of dollars as airlines cut schedules, according to online booking networks.
The scramble for seats comes at a time when airline capacity is tight globally because of supply chain shortages left by COVID-19, with some transatlantic fares even higher than the sums being quoted for flights out of Israel.
(Reporting by Steven Scheer, Carolyn Cohn, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen, Michael Kahn, Victoria Klesty, Joanna Plucinska, Tim Hepher, Huseyin Hayatsever, David Shepardson and Alexander CornwellEditing by Mark Potter and Lincoln Feast.)