What the El Al and Ben-Gurion crisis is all about

Conflicts between pilots and El AL paired with labor issues in Ben-Gurion Airport have created a crisis for travellers.

 TRAVELERS AT THE departure halls of Ben-Gurion International Airport last month during Passover. (photo credit: FLASH90)
TRAVELERS AT THE departure halls of Ben-Gurion International Airport last month during Passover.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

The days are getting longer; with or without global warming, it is getting hot and sticky in this part of the world. “May you live in interesting times” is neither an ancient Chinese curse nor a blessing, but merely expresses the thought of how much better life would be if we lived in times of peace and tranquility rather than in times, such as ours, filled with troubles.

The world by and large survived a pandemic. I am not trivializing the more than six million who succumbed to COVID-19 nor the devastating effect it had on those who endured the disease.

While there is no way to state exactly what the economic damage from the global COVID-19 pandemic will be, there is widespread agreement among economists that it has had a severe negative impact on the global economy. Numbers bandied around exceed most people’s cognitive abilities, as it exceeds $3 trillion of lost economic output.

In Israel, like in most of the world, this loss of output has been coupled with rising inflation. Israel’s economy, like the economies in most of the Western world, has seen a disruption in economic activity and in labor relations.

Much of the tourism infrastructure was existing on fumes the last two years, and only in the last three months has there been a strong rebound in tickets sale, hotel reservations, rental cars and cruises. In fact, while so many experts predicted it would take several years for the bounce back, it has become apparent that by the fourth quarter of this year, figures will have matched pre-COVID numbers.

 FLOWERS AND a card are placed at El Al’s ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport in July 2002, after a gunman killed two people and injured several more before an El Al security guard shot him dead. (credit: ADREES LATIF/REUTERS) FLOWERS AND a card are placed at El Al’s ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport in July 2002, after a gunman killed two people and injured several more before an El Al security guard shot him dead. (credit: ADREES LATIF/REUTERS)

It is the workers’ behavior, though, that is both startling and surprising. Their unions must be cognizant of the precarious situations of their employers.

In the United States, without the assistance of the US government, few of the US airlines would have survived.

Today, a severe pilot shortage in the US leaves airlines scrambling for solutions. The pandemic exacerbated a pilot shortage by slowing down training and hiring and creating a wave of early retirements. Airlines offered pilots early retirements to cut labor bills during the depths of the pandemic. The process to become airline-qualified in the US is lengthy and expensive, making the barrier to entry high. The US is facing its worst pilot shortage in recent memory, forcing airlines to cut flights just as travelers are returning after more than two years of the pandemic.

The shortage is particularly acute at regional carriers that feed major airlines’ hubs from smaller cities. While hiring and retention bonuses have returned at those airlines, pay is lower there than at major airlines, which are recruiting aggressively from those smaller carriers.

American Airlines asked its pilots to come in on their days off to participate in simulator training for pilots. The union’s response was to sue American Airlines. The Pilots Association argued that it would constitute a change in work rules, which would require negotiation. Why management didn’t first come to the union is unknown.

It has been forecast that almost one-third of US pilots will reach retirement age in the next few years. The need for more pilots is a worldwide issue. Never before have the world airlines been more desperate for pilots. The massive pilot shortage affects not only the airlines but also the millions who fly.

American Airlines, which only recently resumed flying to Israel, has seen its flights from both JFK and Miami delayed countless times in the last few months due to crew shortages. United Airlines also has not escaped this new reality.

As passengers are ready to take to the skies and airlines forecast what could be the most profitable summer ever, flyers should prepare for higher prices, more cancellations and more bottlenecks at airports.

El AL

WHICH BRINGS us to El Al, our so-called national carrier, with its US-born owner and its brand-new female CEO.

No surprise that its revenue jumped over 146% in the first quarter of this year. Second-quarter revenue will see an even higher growth. That El Al still lost $66 million is due to the price of jet fuel, which has more than doubled. Labor, though, sees only the glass half full.

El Al’s pilots are no exception to airline unions flexing their muscles with no regard to recent history.

Forget the fact that El Al hemorrhaged millions of dollars the last two years.

Ignore the fact that before COVID-19, El Al and its once loyal passengers endured years of coddled pilots with fantastic conditions who nonetheless demanded more and more. Calling in sick became the norm; flight cancellations were as common as beautiful sunsets. Consecutive managements cajoled, threatened, flattered and enticed the pilots to honor labor agreements.

It took years, but finally, in 2019, labor peace was made. Kosher champagne was raised, and warm labor-management ensued.

Customers could rely once more on El Al. New equipment, new routes and a new spirit descended upon the airline. Sadly, the happily-ever-after fairy tale was punctured when the pandemic erupted.

The government finally came up with financial assistance to El Al. It took many months, through many governments, but in the end the funds were provided. The new owner, too, pumped in more money as part of the economic aid package.

The government, along with dozens of other governments, opened up the skies. Hotels dusted off the cobwebs; rental cars began buying new vehicles. Airlines started bringing back workers, in spite of a shortage of qualified workers.

Post-COVID pilots

So how did El Al’s pilots react to this rainbow in the sky? Were they excited to finally be back in the air? Did they relish the idea of returning to their favorite cities or visiting new destinations such as Dubai or Abu Dhabi or now Sharm e-Sheikh?

Not a chance. Their reaction was to demand more compensation. Like Oliver Twist in Dickens’s masterpiece, their first reaction to the return of normalcy was to hold out a symbolic bowl and ask for more.

More money, more time off, more perks – more, more, more. On Independence Day, earlier this month, eight flights were canceled, not for weather issues or for security issues, but due to a shortage of pilot – pilots unable to fly for reasons that, while legal, are hard to fathom.

One understands their logic. There is a shortage of pilots. Let’s squeeze management for every shekel it has. Make it pay; the owner or the government will step in. The banks won’t let El Al fall. Sure, the consumers will vote with their feet and avoid El Al. Travel professionals will think twice before recommending El Al.

The new CEO of EL Al has drawn a line in the sand, telling the pilots they have a responsibility to fly as instructed and to honor their contract. She asked them point-blank if they would initiate a dialogue rather than taking disruptive actions.

Their response was dripping with sarcasm – “We do not intend to become the punching bag for the controlling shareholders” – and they warned: “They [management] will stop getting into our pockets. We are not responsible for planning the flight schedule; there is a labor culture that protects us from these threats.”

They detailed what they claim are their wages: “We earn half of what every pilot in the Western world gets, about $138 an hour. You will not find a pilot in Europe or North America who earns less than $250 per hour on a 787 plane. In companies like United Airlines, Delta Airlines and American Airlines, it is $380 per hour.”

“We earn half of what every pilot in the Western world gets, about $138 an hour."

El Al pilots

Management has yet to comment on these claims, but the pilots hold all the cards, and, short of going to Labor Court to stop the pilots canceling their flights, willy-nilly, management in the end will have to capitulate. The other labor unions are not supporting their spoiled colleagues’ demands but are impotent in influencing the pilots. Expect more El Al cancellations; don’t be surprised to see El Al’s reputation taking another dent.

Keep in mind that Israeli law demands that all pilots of Israeli aircraft must be Israeli citizens. Yes, Israel does have one of the best air forces in the world turning out military pilots who are the envy of their colleagues. Sadly, though, the threats Israel faces require that those pilots remain in the air force.

Labor issues confront not only El AL but also Ben-Gurion Airport. Management there refuses to hire more workers, claiming that the wage increases of labor cannot be passed on to the consumer. So, expect a very congested airport this spring and summer. Many airlines, such as United, have still refused to open up a separate business class check-in line, leaving even the most well-heeled United passenger fighting his/her way through the dense crowds in the security line just to get to the airline counter.

Advice for travelers

How far in advance to show up for a flight? If you’re the type of person who worries, then show up four hours in advance. If you are not checking a bag, then make it two hours in advance. What you no longer can do is show up an hour in advance, traipse through the airport and saunter over to your gate. Some of you still believe you can act this way; most of you have learned the hard way that you’ll miss your flight. Err on the side of caution. Come early, spend your hard-earned money at the airport’s duty-free, see if you can find an airline lounge in which to cool your heels, but show up on time.

It may help to note the likely motives behind the advice. The security agency and airport want you to get there earlier, each for its own reasons. The agency does not like to be rushed with screenings, even if there’s a long security line. Airports want you to take advantage of their incredible shopping and dining facilities, which you can’t do if you’re rushing to the gate. Also, they factor in the time it takes to find parking. Airlines, on the other hand, don’t want you milling around the boarding area for too long.

Keep in mind that we have come out of a pandemic. Traveling for business or leisure, for a funeral or for a simcha, is something many of us have eschewed the last two years. Don’t let spoiled workers, surly staff or a shortage of security personnel get you down. You are now free to roam around the world. Do so!

The writer is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem and a director at Diesenhaus. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]