Israel’s three airlines said Thursday they would shut down operations, starting Sunday, unless the government backs off its plan to approve an agreement that would open the carriers to heavier competition from Europe.
The “Open Skies” agreement, meant to lower the cost of air travel by reducing barriers for outside airlines to operate in Israel, was signed with the European Union last July after more than three years of negotiations.
Jerusalem plans to formally approve the deal on Sunday.
Sources in the Transportation Ministry said that Open Skies will encourage competition among airlines flying to Israel by removing regulatory restrictions and bureaucratic barriers. As a result, European airlines are expected to increase the number of flights to and from Israel.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz defended the agreement, saying it would “enable airline prices to be lowered for Israeli citizens.” He added that the agreement is also “good for the country because it will bring a lot of tourists… and tourists add many jobs.”
But officials from El Al, Arkia and Israir said they fear the move could leave them at the mercy of European carriers several times their size that can easily push them out of the market.
“We are not opposed to competition, but we are in favor of equal and fair competition,” Avi Edri, the chairman of the transport workers union, told Channel 2 news.
Edri stressed that he does not want to scrap the entire agreement, but rather to make certain modifications that would protect Israeli carriers. “The minister of transportation promised me personally that he ‘will not harm Israeli airlines.’ Where are his promises from before the elections?”
Katz acknowledged the difficulty that the agreement creates for the local airlines, in that it creates greater competition, but said “they have to prepare for that.”
According to Edri, competition currently exists, but the new agreement will bring an additional 60-70 flights weekly to Israel, and force Israeli airlines to lay off hundreds of employees.
“The agreement as it now stands does not allow fair competition,” Eliezer Shkedi, CEO of El Al Airlines, told the TV station. “It’s as though they are putting us in the boxing ring, tying our hands and saying, ‘Please fight.’”
One of the problems, according to Shkedi, is that Israeli airlines will not fly to European airports whose security checks do not meet Israeli standards. Under the Open Skies agreement, unless Israel provides the security at these airports, the European carriers will be able to offer more flights and lower prices than the Israeli companies can supply.
Yigal Cohen, the Arkia worker’s union chairman, called the situation a “battle for survival,” which he blamed on the “devastating and irresponsible decision of the transportation minister… which will throw tens of thousands of workers into the street after the Israeli airline companies collapse.”