Airline Workers Strike, Threaten Ben Gurion Shutdown

YERUSHALAYIM (AP/Hamodia) -

An airline workers’ strike that threatens to shut down Ben Gurion Airport by Tuesday morning could disrupt plans for many people who have been looking forward to being in Israel for Lag BaOmer.

Israel’s Cabinet on Sunday approved “Open Skies,” a deal to allow more EU flights, hours after the country’s airline workers went on strike out of concern that the agreement would cost them jobs and possibly even ruin their companies.

The work action on Sunday stranded hundreds of people scheduled to fly on Israel’s three carriers, El Al, Arkia and Israir.

It also raised the possibility of a longer, broader strike by the Histadrut, Israel’s major labor union, which threatened to ground all flights in and out of Israel starting at 6 a.m. on Tuesday.

The Histadrut said the strike would continue unless the Treasury Ministry and Finance Ministry agreed to alter
the agreement in negotiations. However, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz dismissed such a reopening of the matter in an interview Sunday evening.

As hundreds of union workers protested outside, the Cabinet overwhelmingly approved the agreement, which allows more carriers to serve the Israeli market.

“This is the first decision by the new government aimed at bringing down the cost of living in Israel,” said Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, noting that the agreement would align Israel with European aviation standards on issues such as consumer and environmental protections.

Open Skies Agreements within the EU lowered air prices 34 percent from 1998-2002, Katz said, while growth in passengers nearly doubled.

He said the deal would not be implemented until April 2014.

Critics warned that Israel’s small fleet of planes, along with high security costs, would hinder it from competing with larger international airlines.

But Transportation Ministry Director General Uzi Yitzhaki said the airlines should take stock of themselves, telling Army Radio in a Sunday-morning interview that “the dire condition of the El Al company is a result of failed management.”

“Since 2004, when El Al was privatized, we see only deterioration in its financial situation. The failed management of the El Al administration brought it to this condition even without any connection to Open Skies,” he said.

Ofer Eini, head of the Histadrut, told Israel Radio that he favors Open Skies, but the deal needs to be amended to secure local jobs. He said the arrangement could cause local airlines to collapse, warning that thousands of jobs are at risk.

Although Sunday’s strike did not affect flights by international carriers, Eini indicated the work stoppage could be broadened, though he did not elaborate.

A spokeswoman for El Al, Israel’s national carrier, said of 22 flights planned for Sunday, 14 were brought forward before the strike began and eight were canceled. She said the strike affected hundreds of passengers.

The Open Skies agreement is meant to reduce restrictions on European carriers for using Israeli airspace, increasing competition. It would expand the number of flights between Israel and Europe and allow Israel to become a layover hub. Currently, it is a final stop.

Hundreds of union members demonstrated outside the Cabinet meeting, despite unseasonably rainy weather. Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said officers arrested eight protesters for “causing a public disturbance.”