El Al CEO: We’ll Take This Fight to the ‘Bitter End’

An El Al airline plane at the Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport on August 17, 2016. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** ?? ?? ???? ????? ???? ??? ????? ????
An El Al airline plane at the Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

That longtime, long-haul customers of El Al are suffering because of the latest work dispute is undeniable, and the airline is very sorry that passengers are the victims – but El Al CEO David Maimon has had enough of the “shenanigans” of pilots and senior staff, and he is determined to put an end to it, he said in an interview.

In recent days, the airline – either to punish pilots, or as a result of their actions, depending on which side one believes – has canceled at least one flight per day. Passengers to New York, Newark, Hong Kong and other intercontinental destinations were informed hours before their flight that it was canceled. Passengers’ fares were refunded, but many were left to fend for themselves, finding an available seat on a flight that could get them to their destination in time for an important meeting, family simchah, connecting flights or personal reasons.

It’s all about the money, Maimon said in a statement that was distributed to Israeli media. “The refusal of the pilots to carry out their jobs and their unreasonable demands that they fly in just one direction and return as business class passengers to Israel has brought about a major disruption in our schedule,” Maimon said in the statement, released as a video for employees.

“As a result, we have been forced to outsource our flights to foreign carriers,” Maimon said. “We signed a contract with pilots in 2015, but to date, one important aspect of that contract has been ignored by pilots. Instead, we hear about their anger and their illegal work actions. We in management have decided to put an end to this behavior by pilots. Their behavior has imposed an unreasonable expense on the company, and we will no longer tolerate it.”

At issue are arcane work rules that El Al management claims pilots are taking advantage of to inflate their incomes. Among the “scams” pilots utilize to increase their salaries, said management, is delaying takeoff of flights on the routes to New York in order to extend the flying time – which begins from the moment a pilot sits down in the cockpit – to over 12 hours. According to their contract, flights that extend more than 12 hours grant the pilot two free business class seats on any El Al flight on that route, which they can give out to friends and family. That is two fewer seats the airline can sell, it said. Industry statistics cited by the company show that the average time for an EL Al flight to JFK is 12 hours and 20 minutes, while other carriers that conduct direct flights have a flight time of 11 hours and 30 minutes.

But a bigger pilot “scam,” said management, involves the pilot’s using one of those free seats himself, on the return flight to Israel that day. According to their contract, pilots get paid for the flight back, even if they are not flying the plane themselves – and in recent months, many, according to the airline, have simply refused to fly planes back to Israel. According to FAA rules, pilots must wait a few days before they can captain multiple transatlantic flights, but instead of waiting in New York (or Beijing, Los Angeles, or the other destinations that take more than 12 hours of flight time), the pilots get on board the same plane as it returns to Israel, sitting in their free seat and banking pay for the “work.”

As a result, pilots’ salaries have jumped in recent months, said management – with the average pilot today earning NIS 98,000 a month, with the record-setter earning NIS 186,000. In addition, management said, the pilots are “conspiring” together to set work schedules, with many calling in sick in turn so that their fellow whose “turn” it is to bank double pay for a one-way flight can move up in the rotation. On Wednesday, El Al released a list of excuses given by 12 pilots, all of whom the airline said refused to captain a flight to Hong Kong, which was eventually canceled.

While some flights have been canceled, the airline has also off-loaded scheduled flights to other carriers, paying other carriers to conduct the flights. According to the union representing pilots, the airline is doing this in order to break the back of the union, and it called management’s claims “complete lies,” saying that the airline has spun fables in order to advance its economic plans, which entails firing most of the unionized staff and reconstituting the company with lower-paid employees. For example, said the union, there were at least five pilots who were prepared to take on the Hong Kong flight Wednesday, but management listed them as “refuseniks” – in order to further fuel its arguments about the “sins” of the workers and further justify their case for renegotiation. This, the union said, is unacceptable, and it expected that workers would choose to strike when a vote is taken on the matter in the coming days.

The union has framed the issue as a matter of safety and convenience, claiming that passengers are at risk because of lower safety standards on other carriers, and schedule changes that cause many delays for passengers. In a statement, the union representing workers said that the off-loading of flights “is being done by management for strictly economic reasons, and comes at the expense of passengers, who paid full price and expected to fly El Al with Israeli staff, technicians, engineers and pilots. Israel’s national carrier has turned into a flight broker, without the consent of passengers and at the expense of workers. El Al workers can no longer sit back and watch as the irresponsible management advances measures that will harm all of us.”