El Al Talks Break Down as Pilots, Management Dig In

El Al planes at Ben Gurion International Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The labor issues at El Al are far from over. Representatives of pilots stormed out of a court-ordered negotiation session Monday night, the airline said, as pilots and management continue to dig in on the issue of how much retired pilots should get paid.

The session was ordered last week, after the Tel Aviv Labor Court ordered pilots to halt their new round of sanctions that delayed over a dozen flights last week. According to eyewitnesses, however, the atmosphere between the two sides was so bitter that they sat in separate rooms and “negotiated” by passing messages to each other, Haaretz reported. Instead of making progress, the eyewitnesses said, both sides actually retracted concessions they had made previously, and dug into their own positions more forcefully.

The latest work dispute between pilots and management revolves around conditions for pilots who have reached the age of 65 and can no longer fly, but are still employed by El Al. Under an international agreement signed by Israel in 2014, pilots 65 and older are no longer allowed to fly planes, although under their contracts with El Al they can remain on the job until age 67.

The airline has adjusted the salaries of these pilots downwards – causing much anger among pilots and in the Histadrut, although the issue is one of those being discussed in the negotiations that began in November, after a long period of flight cancellations and recriminations between management and pilots over a number of labor issues.

A report in Yediot Acharonot  revealed that the pilots affected were demanding the full basic salary the airline pays senior cabin staff – NIS 45,000 per month, even though they worked only ten days a month, mostly training younger pilots on an air flight simulator. The airline has offered the pilots NIS 33,000 a month for the ten days of work, with an additional NIS 5,000 for each extra day worked. As an alternative, sources in the airline said that the affected pilots said they would be willing to retire – in return for NIS 1.75 million severance pay for each pilot. A later proposal cut that to NIS 900,000 per pilot, with NIS 300,000 to be paid by the union, and the balance by the airline.

In a statement, El Al said that negotiators were “shocked” by the walkout “after a short negotiation session. The reason for this crisis is the refusal of pilots to acquiesce to the most basic rule of labor relations – fair work for fair pay. All proposals to satisfy the demands of pilots were rejected by them outright. They prefer to gamble the livelihoods of thousands of families who earn their keep from El Al, and again are turning our customers into hostages, just days after a court again ordered them back to work, and ending their work actions.”

In response, labor representatives for the pilots said that “the only shocking thing here is the way the director of Israel’s national airline lies to the media. Unlike management’s claim, we did not ‘walk out’ of negotiations. It was the head of the Histadrut, Avi Nissenkorn, who hosted the negotiations and who suggested we call it a night, after management retracted understandings made in previous discussions, and made new demands – refusing to compromise in any way.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, no flights had been cancelled – but El Al urged travelers to keep a close watch on the situation, and to carefully check schedules before departing for the airport.