The Travel Adviser: Drawing a line in the sand at El Al

Questions remain at the flagship Israeli airline.

December 4, 2016 01:34
AN EL AL Boeing 777 aircraft is seen at Ben-Gurion Airport

AN EL AL Boeing 777 aircraft is seen at Ben-Gurion Airport. (photo credit: REUTERS)

There had been press releases decrying their action; phone calls had been recorded and their transcripts were published detailing a litany of excuses. Unnamed sources opined there would be no capitulation. In the battle of the press, the El Al pilots appeared to have the edge. Total silence from El Al management; no press conferences called by their spokesman.

Let’s set the stage. The Israel Association of Travel Agencies & Consultants was holding its annual conference in Athens. I have no idea why it chose to support the Greek economy, but we won’t open that can of worms. These were three days of spirited presentations, lectures, a nighttime dinner at the Acropolis Museum, with the highlight being an evening at a Greek night club with a program choreographed by El Al, a meal created by Beit Chabad and the keynote speaker – the beleaguered, browbeaten, yet stoically quiet CEO of El Al, David Maimon.

A gala event it was planned to be, replete with a multimedia production presented by dancers of the Israel Ballet. For months El Al had worked hard on this evening, hoping to tease and tangle the travel industry with new routes and plans in the coming year.

Alas, the best made plans of mice and men are often changed, and bad tempers among passengers, competitors and employees left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. Day after day, flights were being canceled or delayed. Replacement planes and crews were brought in from the Czech Republic, Madrid and Portugal. Passengers were flying on Privilege Style and Hi Fly, two airlines unknown to nearly everyone in the industry.

El Al’s top elite frequent fliers were jumping ship, and even El Al’s offer of free flights for those unlucky passengers shafted were not eliciting much thanks.

The Histadrut labor federation had requested negotiations between the Pilots Union and El Al management, and 11 hours of talks had commenced. Fires were raging throughout the country, and the Knesset had “invited” Maimon to appear the next morning at the Knesset, so that publicly El Al’s side could be explained.

This state of distress between the pilots and management is nothing new. Long having escalated from a petty squabble, serious negotiations to alter the pilots’ contract had been held over the last 18 months with little progress.

The flying public knew of some of the problems. It had seen routes to Toronto and Boston decimated last summer, as management chose to replace those El Al planes with leased airplanes and crews.

El Al management had seen the average number of the pilots’ sick days triple over the last year. It seems the pilots discovered a gold nugget in their contract. There was no need to prove one was sick with a doctor’s note, and any replacement pilot could demand an immediate return to Israel in business class at full wages. Better yet, as it was a last minute request, compensation would be doubled. So the pilots accelerated their use of sick days and started calling a few hours before the flight was scheduled. Some days it was five flights to all parts of the world; other days they focused on the Far East and Europe.

There was almost no chance for management to plan ahead, and huge amounts of compensation were paid out, or a flight was simply delayed until a leased plane could show up. Don’t forget the Israeli aviation law that any delay of plane departing from or arriving to Ben-Gurion Airport that is later than eight hours triggers an automatic NIS 3,000 in compensation. Whether the plane originated in Hong Kong or Tel Aviv, these huge delays were bankrupting El Al.

El Al reservations and staff have been near heroic in handling the pilots squabble. Working around the clock, they have permitted travel agents to change their existing client’s tickets to almost any airline. You had a flight to Bangkok that was canceled; you were asked if you would fly Turkish Airlines. You were flying to Newark; you were moved to United.

This has continued unabated for several weeks, with barely a peep from El Al management. Pilots and their representatives took to social media to plead their case.

You turned on the radio or TV, wandered through Facebook, and these poor underappreciated pilots made their case. It didn’t matter that many of their representatives inside their union resigned; with nobody speaking out on behalf of El Al’s management, how could the public assign blame? Hopping on an Israir flight to Athens along with the Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Club, Maimon decided to no longer remain silent. Arriving at the gala event his airline had sponsored and created, he took the stage in front of hundreds of travel professionals. Those old enough to remember how US president Ronald Reagan dealt with the striking flight controllers would have loved hearing Maimon’s talk. Reagan, back in 1981, fired 11,000 flight controllers, tired of being held to their outrageous demands.

Maimon spoke without a speech or stutter for 20 minutes nonstop. A line in the sand had been drawn, and with El Al’s private owners’ blessing, capitulation was no longer in the cards. The average salary of a pilot has risen 33% without an agreed pay raise over the last two years by utilizing last-minute pilots with large bonuses for agreeing to fly at the last minute.

Want to hear my favorite trick that the pilots have used that Maimon shared with us? The contract with the pilots allows them overtime when a flight is over 12 hours long. So obviously, when flying to Los Angeles, the 14.5-hour flight is eligible, but JFK and Newark airports do not usually require such a lengthy flight time. Over the last few years, El Al pilots have managed to lengthen that trip from 11 hours and 45 minutes to 12 hours and 10 minutes, automatically doubling the pilots’ base pay. By taxiing slower on the runway and flying at a slower speed, El Al pilots have managed to turn time back, or at least slow it down enough so it would break 12 hours.

I steadfastly believe that El Al pilots, trained and battle-tested in the Israel Air Force, are the best in the world. In the case of an incident on board, my trust would go first and foremost with our Israeli pilots.

Recently, Turkish Airlines was in Canada recruiting foreign pilots to come work for it as it continues to add routes to its sprawling network. In Israel, legislation exists that only an Israeli citizen may be a pilot on an Israeli airline, which encompasses El Al, Arkia, Israir and Sun D’or.

There are 600 pilots on the payroll of El Al; management is working furiously to hire more pilots and had a program in place where veteran pilots would train the newbies and be compensated accordingly. The Pilots Union recently put a cork in that program as well, refusing to train new pilots until its squabble with management is resolved.

No more, Maimon reiterated. No more overtime pay for all flights. El Al’s computers will now determine how long a flight should take. Software programs are now in place to calculate all the variables and determine the exact time. No more, Maimon repeated, would pilots be allowed to demand an immediate return to Tel Aviv, at full pay and in business class, where paying passenger could be, and have been, bumped. No more, Maimon restated, would pilots be allowed to call in sick, or claim they drank a glass of wine within the period before flying that is forbidden – he’ll bring them up on charges.

His audience was mesmerized and, to a large extent, very supportive. We in the industry have a long litany of complaints against El Al, but on this issue there is very little disagreement. Many of us believe there is only one alternative if the pilots can’t agree: Shut it down! As airlines around the world have done over the last decade when a recalcitrant union refuses to make necessary changes, shut it down.

At the end of his speech, a standing ovation was added to the thunderous applause. Few in the room had ever seen a CEO speak so clearly about labor issues and his position. A line in the sand has been drawn, and in the next few weeks we’ll see how this plays out.

The following morning Maimon, in the Knesset, stated quite succinctly: “We have reached complete agreements with all of the workers in all aspects – except for the pilots. We couldn’t approve an immoral way of increasing their pay. Their disruptions are costing a lot of money.”

The reply of the head of the pilots’ workers committee, Nir Zuk, was also to the point and illuminated how weak their position is. Rather than defend the indefensible, he tried appealing to Zionism in the Knesset: “The leased airplanes are a cancer. It harms both the company’s passengers and its workers.”

Mr. Zuk, I would simply paraphrase what Reagan said to the former head of the Soviet Union: Tear up your excuses and work on what’s best for the airline and your pilots’ future.

Just a few days after the CEO went public and another full-day marathon session of negotiations was held, the pilots acceded to every one of his demands. El Al would stop using leased airlines, pilots would start flying faster, no longer demand to come back immediately in business class, and resume training new pilots.

Management knew it would come at a cost, and as the famous line goes, “We’ve already established what they are. Now we’re just haggling over the price.” The El Al pilots’ price was a 7.3% wage increase. Considering that their overtime salary will now drop dramatically, it was a fair compromise.

Will this labor peace continue? Hard to say, but huge kudos to Maimon for drawing his line in the sand and holding steadfast to his principles.

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at mark.feldman@

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