The Cabinet on Sunday approved a contentious air travel agreement with the European Union that prompted Israel’s airlines to halt flights and launch a vocal protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office.
A solid majority of 16 ministers voted in favor of the deal, with only three ministers registering their objection: Immigration Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharanovich and Environment Protection Minister Amir Peretz.
The Open Skies agreement is aimed at increasing foreign competition with local airlines to improve tourism and lower airfares.
El Al, Arkia, and Israir — Israel’s three airlines — halted all outgoing flights at 5 a.m. Sunday, launching an open-ended strike in protest against Open Skies. El AL later said it was cancelling all flights scheduled to leave before 9.00 pm on Sunday night and at Ben Guiron airport an announcement on the public address system asked passengers to return home. Passengers were instructed to get updates from the airline itself and media reports.
Aviation union officials were set to meet later in the day to review the situation and discuss further action.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the agreement.
“The goal of the reform that we approved today is to lower the prices of flights to and from Israel and to increase incoming tourism,” Netanyahu said. “I commend Finance Minister [Yair] Lapid and Transportation Minister [Yisrael] Katz for working to pass this reform, which has been discussed for many years. We will continue to advance reforms to lower the cost of living and increase the efficiency of services to Israeli citizens.”
Ben Gurion International Airport was packed with passengers Saturday night and early Sunday morning as the airlines rescheduled some of the planned Sunday morning flights to beat the start of the strike action. An Israel Airports Authority spokesperson said roughly 4,500 passengers took off on 28 flights between 4 and 6 a.m. Incoming flights continued to arrive, but there were no employees on hand to take care of their luggage, which was to be stored by airport employees.
Other airlines continued their regular flight schedules.
The Histadrut trade union federation was said to be considering launching a full nationwide transport strike — bringing all public transportation, ports and airports to a standstill — in solidarity with the three airlines, Channel 2 reported Friday evening. It did not specify when such a strike might be launched.
Channel 10 News reported Saturday that an internal Transportation Ministry document, which it claimed was not being brought to the minister’s attention, said El Al might collapse if Open Skies came into effect.
Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini wrote that “putting the arrangement into effect in its current form could produce critical and irrecoverable harm to the aviation industry and even bring about its complete destruction.”
Dozens of employees from El Al, Arkia, and Israir, as well as representatives of the national pilots’ association, held demonstrations in front of the homes of Lapid and Katz on Friday morning to protest the agreement, which they said was unfair, ill-conceived and liable to ruin their businesses.
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. Transportation Ministry officials believe the deal will bring about an increase in tourism and open new destinations for Israeli travelers.
“I will not be deterred by threats. It is time we stop letting the monopolies hold the public hostage to the interests of powerful companies,” said Katz.
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.”
“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 did 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?”
Lapid came out Friday to meet with the demonstrators, even inviting them into his house to discuss the issues. “There will likely be painful compromises,” he said. “But there is no intention to harm the workers.” He said there was nothing more important to him than their jobs.
Asher Zeiger and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.