Labor court to El Al and pilots: Keep talking, and flying

Pilot sanctions over pay have led to numerous recent flight cancellations; court wants “intense negotiations.”

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The Tel Aviv Labor Court ordered El Al and its pilots Thursday to negotiate in good faith over the next two weeks instead of issuing a back-to-work injunction that the airline had requested following numerous recent flight cancellations due to pilots not showing up for work.

“The parties will conduct intensive negotiations for two weeks and report to the court on its progress every three days,” it ruled. “The parties will abide by the employment agreements in good faith and will maintain the applicant’s regular flight schedule.”

Over the last two months, the national carrier’s pilots have not been reporting for flights that have been added to a pre-existing schedule due to growing demand following the loosening of Covid-19 restrictions. This is considered “overtime,” which the pilots are refusing to commit to as they demand that El Al raise their salaries back to pre-Covid levels.

The pandemic forced El Al, like airlines all over the world, to basically shut down for months, leading to desperate cries for governmental aid. In exchange for some $230 million in government loans, El Al agreed to many cost-cutting measures, including slashing pilots’ salaries 30 percent.

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The pilots signed off on the recovery plan, which would gradually raise their pay back to normal by 2027, but are now unofficially reneging on the agreement.

Dozens of flights to various locations have been cancelled at the last minute over the last two months, leading to fears over what will happen in the summer season, the highest-traffic and most potentially lucrative period for the airline, which is still in a precarious financial state.

El Al told the court that it had applied to the judicial system for relief after negotiating fruitlessly with the pilots during this period. In May, CEO Dina Ben Tal accused the pilots in a letter to their committee of “rejecting” El Al’s “outstretched hand” at a “decisive time” for the company.

Besides not reporting for duty, pilots of the more advanced, and popular, 777 planes were deliberately avoiding fitness tests (so they could not legally fly), she wrote. The resulting flight cancellations were damaging the airline’s reputation, which it could ill afford.

For their part, the pilots have said the company was doing better now and they were not willing to be sacrificed when other employee sectors in the company did not “suffer” such wage cuts. They also told the court that it was management that had “blown up” the negotiations.

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The salaries of El Al pilots, who are some 10% of the company’s workforce, comprises over 40% of the company’s wages overall. Pre-pandemic, they earned between NIS110,000 and 160,000 per month.