After apparent boycott, El Al says pilots found to staff Netanyahu’s flight to Rome

National carrier CEO says flight to depart as scheduled, hours after Netanyahu’s office issues tender for other airlines amid reported pilots’ refusal over judicial overhaul bid

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L)) and his wife, Sara, ahead of a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris on February 2, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L)) and his wife, Sara, ahead of a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris on February 2, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming flight to Rome will be fully staffed and will depart as scheduled, El Al CEO Dina Ben Tal Ganancia said Sunday, hours after it appeared no pilots had volunteered to fly the premier in apparent protest of his hardline coalition.

On Sunday afternoon, Hebrew-language media reported that none of El Al’s pilots had signed up to fly Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, to Italy for an official visit scheduled to start Thursday, prompting the premier’s office to announce it would issue a tender to other Israeli airlines to fly him on official visits.

According to the reports, the pilots were refusing to fly the couple over opposition to the coalition’s radical judicial overhaul plan, which has garnered widespread opposition, with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating nationwide against the push and critics warning that it will undermine democracy, the economy, and Israel’s security.

By Sunday night, Ben Tal Ganancia said a crew had been found. El Al had denied the reason was political, adding that the difficulty was due to a shortage of pilots qualified to fly the Boeing 777, a relatively large aircraft that the Netanyahus are reportedly insisting on, saying that several other 777 flights were also affected.

El Al’s fleet of 777s has still not fully returned to service after being grounded during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was not immediately clear how opening up the tender to other companies would solve the issue as neither of the other two Israeli airlines, Arkia and Israir, operate the 777.

In a statement Sunday, Ben Tal Ganancia said she would “not allow any boycotts of any kind, and certainly not against the prime minister of Israel.”

Israeli airline El Al planes parked at Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, Israel, on March 16, 2018. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

“It is a great honor for us to fly the prime minister on diplomatic missions. We have always done so and will continue to do so,” she added.

The Netanyahus are scheduled to fly on Thursday to Rome, where the prime minister will meet with his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni and return on Saturday night.

The premier’s last trip took place in February when he also flew out on a Thursday and met French President Emmanuel Macron on the same day in Paris. The Netanyahus remained in Paris for the whole weekend at the luxury Hotel du Collectionneur, meeting with business chiefs and Jewish community leaders.

A full schedule for the Rome trip has yet to be released.

Netanyahu is also planning to fly to Germany for a two-day visit the following week, the Ynet news site reported.

Earlier Sunday, former pilots told Hebrew media that a likely solution to the problem would be to have one of El Al’s fleet managers, who are qualified to fly, pilot the plane.

“He will fly. Also during his previous flight, in the end, fleet managers flew him and that is what will happen this time. But there are many that oppose it and don’t want it,” a former El Al pilot told Walla, referencing the couple’s trip to Paris.

Another potential scenario reported by Channel 12 was to have the Prime Minister’s Office agree to the use of an El Al Boeing 737, which more pilots are trained to fly.

Israir has six Airbus 320s in its fleet, while Arkia has just five aircraft, including two Airbus 321Ls and two Embraer 195s.

In reaction to the reported boycott, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, a staunch Netanyahu loyalist, said she would open up the tender to fly the prime minister to other Israeli airlines. Sources in Regev’s office told the Kan public broadcaster that El Al could face punitive measures from the government, noting that the airline is dependent on loans and guarantees from the government.

In response to Regev, an El Al spokesperson told Kan that the airline “has flown and will fly all prime ministers, including Benjamin Netanyahu, to any place needed in the world. El Al workers are proud and happy to do so any time they are needed.”

Netanyahu is forced to rent planes for national visits as Israel’s long-awaited version of Air Force One has yet to enter service.

The plane, also a 777, known as “Wing of Zion,” took years to outfit and was intended to be used by Israeli heads of state for official business.

The ‘Wing of Zion,’ the Israeli version of Air Force One, is seen above Ben Gurion Airport, on its first test flight, November 3, 2019. (Yoav Weiss/Israel Aerospace Industries)

However, the previous government mothballed it and planned to sell it, saying it was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Netanyahu has brought it back, but it is still undergoing trials before being declared fit for service.

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