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.
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.”
Cheaper flights and better service should be on the way for Israeli travelers, following an agreement reached between the European Union and Israel in Tel Aviv on Thursday that will see the development of a common aviation area between the Israel and the EU.
The so-called “Open Skies” agreement is the result of eight rounds of negotiations the parties have held since December 2008. According to the European Commission, the agreement is expected to increase travel opportunities and economic benefits both for Israel and countries across Europe.
In a press release issued Thursday, Siim Kallas, EU commissioner for transport, said the agreement allows for further strengthening of economic, trade and tourist relations between Israel and the EU.
“Israel is a key partner for the EU and the agreement will do much to develop the aviation links between the two partners and establish a high level of regulatory convergence,” the statement read.
The agreement means that all airlines in the EU will be able to operate direct flights to Israel from any location in the EU, and Israeli airlines in turn will be able to fly to any EU airport.
The EU said Thursday that due to the agreement, by 2017 the market will be completely open with no limits whatsoever on the number of flights between Israel and the EU.
The agreement is expected to encourage an increase in the number of direct flights from Israel to more destinations across Europe at lower prices. In addition, prices are expected to drop for Europeans traveling to Israel.
The agreement will also require that Israeli carriers implement EU-level regulatory requirements in safety, consumer protection, air traffic management, economic regulation, competition issues and environment, among other areas.
According to European Union figures, the EU-Israel air transport market accounted for 6.75 million passengers in 2010. The EU accounts for some 57 percent of international air travel from Israel, and there are direct flight connections between Israel and 16 EU member states – Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain and the United Kingdom.
The EU said Thursday that the agreement is part of an effort to create a wider Common Aviation Area between the EU and its neighbors. The EU has already signed such agreements with neighbors in the Balkans, Morocco, Jordan, Georgia and Moldova, and is carrying out negotiations with Ukraine, Lebanon, and soon with Azerbaijan and Tunisia.
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.”