Thousands stranded as airline strike continues

Labor court to rule on legality of walkout over Open Skies agreement, which seeks to open aviation industry to competition

An illustrative photo, taken at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport, during an airline workers strike, on April 21, 2013.  (photo credit: Flash90)
An illustrative photo, taken at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport, during an airline workers strike, on April 21, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

The open-ended strike by Israeli air carriers El Al, Arkia and Israir entered its second day on Monday. Workers are protesting the newly approved Open Skies deal with the European Union, a move the strikers claim will lead to a loss of jobs in the airline industry and the possible closing of Israeli airlines due to increased competition.

Thousands of people were stranded around the world due to the cancellation of their flights to Israel. Foreign-based carriers with flights to and from the country were still operating, although workers from the German airline Lufthansa also announced a 24-hour general strike on Monday, in an unrelated labor dispute that grounded 1,700 flights worldwide.

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, and ratified during Sunday’s cabinet meeting by a vote of 16-3.

Transportation Ministry officials believe the deal will bring about an increase in tourism and open new destinations for Israeli travelers. The agreement allows for all airlines based in the EU to fly directly to Israel, and for Israeli airlines to fly to all destinations in Europe.

“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,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday. “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.”

Transportation Minister Katz defended the Open Skies agreement on Monday, saying it would improve efficiency. He added that it was too late to change the provisions of the agreement, and said the strike was “not the right move.”

Opposition MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) said that while “competition is good and will serve the Israeli consumer,” the agreement should have been implemented in dialogue with Israeli airlines, not unilaterally.

The Open Skies agreement will bring prosperity to the 200,000 citizens who work in the the tourism industry due to increased flights to Israel, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beytenu) said on Monday.

Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beytenu), who was one of the three ministers to vote against the measure, said on Monday that “before signing agreements you have to think about the future, and the loss of livelihood for thousands of people.”

Calling the agreement a fait accompli and the strike unnecessary, Finance Minister Lapid said Open Skies was good for the “citizens of Israel, the economy and tourism.” He acknowledged that attention must be paid to the Israeli air carriers’ special concerns stemming from their unique security needs, but said that “this can be resolved.”

The Israeli airlines have been on strike since 5 a.m. Sunday. Should the stoppage continue, on Tuesday it is set to expand to include airport workers, who said they will join in solidarity, a move that would severely hamper all air travel in and out of Israel.

However, since airport workers are not allowed to launch a full-fledged strike as they did not officially announce a labor dispute, they will hold a series of intermittent solidarity strikes, lasting several hours at a time, from Tuesday morning at 5 a.m., Histadrut labor federation head Ofer Eini said.

On Monday, the National Labor Court heard a petition by the Manufacturers Association of Israel and the Airport Authority demanding that strikers be presented with back-to-work orders. Labor Court judge Nili Arad set a hearing for 6 p.m. If the court rules against the strikers, the strike will be declared illegal and they will be required to return to work on Tuesday.

Eini urged the government to quickly enter talks to end the strike. “The finance and transportation ministers should immediately start negotiations to find a solution for fair competition for Israeli airlines,” he told Ynet. “If they announce they are negotiating and a solution will be found, we will end the strike.”

The union, in charge of all employee disputes in Israel, reviewed special requests for the flights Sunday night and decided to allow two flights, one of students headed to a robotics competition and the other an organized trip of families who have had a family member survive cancer, to take off as scheduled.

Two more flights were allowed to land on Monday, one from Paris carrying a body for a scheduled funeral in Israel, and the other carrying 90 medical workers.

At Ben Gurion on Monday morning, some travelers still arrived expecting to catch their canceled departing flights, or to be transferred to a carrier that was still in operation, but that option was largely unavailable.

“Our agent told us to come,” one stranded traveler told Channel 10. “We tried to get on another airline’s flight as a substitute, but they told us there was no room.”

Singer and media personality Mira Awad wrote on Facebook that she was “waiting around Ben Gurion airport, to see if I have a seat on whatever flight to NY.” She added that the strike by El Al was “so screwed up. Their slogan being, ‘Feeling at home away from home,’ maybe it makes sense! Meaning: we screw you everywhere in the world exactly like we do at home.”

Aaron Kalman contributed to this report.

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