Why are El Al pilots getting ‘sick’ before flights?

The delay was related to a so-called “Italian strike” El Al pilots have orchestrated several times since 2014 as part of an ongoing labor dispute.

June 3, 2016 01:07
2 minute read.
El Al

An El Al Boeing 777 aircraft is seen at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS/IDF SPOKESMAN)

Last month, as hundreds of El Al passengers lined up at the gate in Ben-Gurion Airport for a flight to New York, they received unwelcome news over the loudspeaker.

The flight would be delayed until the following morning.

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The pilot, it seemed, had called in sick at the last minute.

The delay was related to a so-called “Italian strike” El Al pilots have orchestrated several times since 2014 as part of an ongoing labor dispute.

Instead of a full-on strike, the Neapolitan variety consists of intentionally slowing business, causing delays or disrupting productivity.

In March, for example, a slew of El Al flights were delayed or canceled after some 20 pilots “mysteriously came down with illnesses” before their flights, Israeli press reported. In December, flights to New York and Brussels were nixed for the same reason.

Though El Al stresses that a coordinated Italian strike is not under way, occasionally a lone pilot will still throw a wrench in the flight schedule, as talks over retirement, pay and other labor conditions continue.

While the point of such labor actions is to frustrate customers, tarnish the airline’s image and run up costs for the company, it’s possible that they are not having a noticeable effect for one, uncomfortable reason: El Al’s tardiness schedule is abysmal.

According to FlightStats, a company that collects global aviation data, El Al ranked the lowest of 42 global airlines in terms of delays, with only 38.4 percent of its flights arriving on time in April. It ranked 29th in terms of the average length of the delay, which came to 44.6 minutes (the worst was China Eastern Airlines, at 67 minutes, followed by Delta at 63.3).

In the past year, El Al only broke the bottom three twice. Its highest ranking, in May, was seventh from last.

Awkwardly, the pilot actions seemed to have no correlation to the company’s overall performance in terms of delays.

El Al disputed FlightStat’s methodology, which defines delays as flights that do not arrive within 15 minutes of the scheduled time.

“The global standard checks the operational accuracy in terms of departure times,” an El Al representative said.

By that measure, she said, El Al is on time 75 percent of the time, though she did not provide data sources or comparisons with other airlines.

Often, pilots will amend the flight course to avoid turbulence, she explained, which could lead to a delayed arrival even if the departure was on time.

Be that as it may, if pilots want to really shake things up, they may have to find a more noticeable form of protest.

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