El Al Pilots Dispute Gets Ugly

Planes from different airlines seen on the landing strip at Ben Gurion International Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Planes from different airlines seen on the landing strip at Ben Gurion International Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

An escalating dispute between the management of El Al Airlines and the pilots union over wages and working conditions has turned ugly, with accusations of irresponsibility, underhandedness and lying.

In a contentious move, El Al has expanded its fleet of leased foreign planes and flight crews on standby in case of last-minute pilot no-shows, a sanction which has in the past wrought havoc with departure schedules. In recent days, the foreign standbys from Spanish and Portuguese airlines have carried El Al passengers to several destinations including Geneva, Prague, and Milan, Globes reported on Wednesday.

The foreign standbys are a persistent thorn in the side of the Israeli pilots, who charge that the company is taking advantage of passengers—El Al ticketholders receiving ground services and security from the company, but actually flying on another airline, with all that involves, including passenger complaints.

El Al said in response, “The disruption of flights is a result of conditions imposed by pilots for flying, principally a prior demand for splitting flights (in other words, a refusal to work on round trip flights and a demand to work only on one-way flights, while flying on the return flight as inactive staff, thereby doubling the cost of each flight and doubling their salary) in contravention of the agreement, a demand for a business class seat, etc.

“These actions are substantially increasing the company’s expenses at a time of growing competition, when it must spend more resources on passenger service.

“Three El Al crew members are joining the team of stewards. The food, service profile, ground services, and security checks in Israel and overseas are taking place the same as for all El Al flights. El Al is making every effort to notify the passengers as early as possible that their flights will be in a leased plane. Passengers seeking to switch to a different flight, or to cancel their flight, can do so without paying fees for changes or cancelations.”

El Al Air Pilot Association chairman and pilot Nir Tzuk shot back: “El Al pilots, together with the company employees, are being confronted with angry passengers suffering from the management’s irresponsibility. All we can do is apologize to El Al passengers. For example, on a flight to Beijing, the flight captain, who had to feed his hospitalized father, gave notice 12 hours before the flight that he would have to remain in Israel. During this time, not one, but nine other pilots were found willing to operate the flight. The flight was unnecessarily postponed to the morning.

“In contrast to the lies spread by management, which said that the problems were caused by pilots not appearing for flights, or disruptions conducted by the pilots, the disruptions were caused solely by management’s decisions and actions.”

The dispute concerns employment terms, including the pilots’ working hours and salary. El Al currently employs 530 active pilots, including 250 captains. The company recently recruited 56 pilots, and 50 more will be recruited by October. The average monthly salary of a pilot is NIS 50,000, and captains earn NIS 90,000, plus $2,000 for room and board.

Proposed cost-cutting measures are at the heart of the fight. For example, on flights to distant destinations, international regulations stipulate three crew members in the cockpit, while four are actually being sent: two first officers and two captains. El Al wants to change this practice. Another matter involves working hours; El Al wants pilots to work more than 85 flight hours – which is already taking place.

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