Israeli carriers El Al, Arkia and Israir began a strike at 5 a.m. on Sunday morning by grounding their fleets in protest of the the cabinet's decision to pass an Open Skies agreement with the European Union. The Israeli air carriers demanded the government table the decision for a later date.

If passed, the agreement would introduce greater competition, which could theoretically bring down prices and force airlines to make difficult business decisions.

El Al announced Saturday evening that cancellations and changes would apply to flights departing from 5 a.m. on Sunday.

The airline advised passengers to turn to the El Al website for updated information about their specific flight.

For many of the flights, including one that had been scheduled to take off for New York at 10:40 a.m., the airline pushed ahead departure times to significantly earlier hours.

For example, the 10:40 a.m. flight was moved to 1:10 a.m., while all others scheduled for between 6 and 9 a.m. were changed to between 4:10 and 4:40 a.m., according to the El Al website.

Israir also warned customers that due to the strike, most flights after 5 a.m. on Sunday would be either canceled or changed. Two Israir flights to Europe were moved to earlier departure times, while two Israir charter flights were still scheduled to take off as scheduled.

As for flights to and from Eilat, Israir said customers would be eligible for refunds and could buy tickets for buses departing from the Sde Dov, Ben-Gurion, Haifa and Eilat airports.

Arkia meanwhile asked passengers to remain updated about their flights by checking online statuses, and ensured that the airline would do all in its power to allow for smooth travel.

On Friday, Finance Minister Yair Lapid told some 30 airline workers demonstrating outside his home that while the government would not abandon Israel’s workers, it was unlikely to forego the agreement, Israel Radio reported. Transportation Minister Israel Katz told the station earlier in the day that there was no avoiding passage of the agreement, the details of which he finalized in July after three years of negotiation with the EU.

The Open Skies Agreement, Katz argued, would decrease prices for passengers and create an influx of tourism into Israel. He accused Israel’s monopolies of protesting reforms that benefit the nation.

The Histadrut labor federation announced the strike on Thursday afternoon, calling it “an existential strike for the future of Israeli airlines.”

“The meaning of the agreement in its current form is the elimination of Israeli airlines and the direct and indirect firing of tens of thousands of workers,” it said, arguing that the government should take full responsibility for airline security in order to remove the onerous burden on Israeli airlines and level the playing field.

“We are not against competition, but we are in favor of equal and fair competition,” said Avi Edry, head of the El Al workers union. “Israeli airlines, and most of all El Al, are the only companies that fly in times of crisis and provide the first response to the State of Israel.” 

In a letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini on Saturday urged the government to reconsider approving the Open Skies agreement.

"I am appealing to you at this critical hour in an urgent call to the Israeli government to avoid making difficult and destructive historical decisions, with no substantive discussion on the matter and on the basis of incomplete information," he said.

Arkia workers union chairman Yigal Cohen added: “This is a battle for survival that could be the last following the devastating and irresponsible decision of the transportation minister.”

An executive for one of the European carriers, who asked not to be named, agreed that Open Skies would improve consumer choice and give discount airlines more of an opening to enter the market, but added that the situation would be tough for non- Israeli airlines as well.

“The legacy carriers of Europe are just as open to being negatively affected by the Open Skies agreement as El Al or the other Israeli carriers,” he said. “These airlines have a legacy in terms of union and labor agreements, while the discount airlines don’t.” 

Airports Authority workers were set to strike in solidarity with the airline workers starting on Tuesday at 6 a.m.

Jpost.com staff contributed to this report.

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