El Al and other Israeli airlines will strike if the government approves the Open Skies agreement on Sunday. – Photo: Moshe Shai
The cabinet is expected to vote on the agreement when it holds its weekly session on Sunday. If the strike materializes, some 50 outbound flights from Israel would be grounded on Sunday. Incoming traffic would not be disrupted.
The new Open Skies agreement is expected to open up the civil aviation industry to new European-based air carriers and increase competition. The move would likely result in much lower air fares and more European destinations that have direct flights from Israel.
Airline union workers said they would walk out en masse unless the government amended the agreement. On Friday, all three unions are expected to picket Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s home in northern Tel Aviv as well as the home of Transportation, National Infrastructure and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz in southern Israel.
Histadrut Transport Workers Union Chairman Avi Edri on Thursday convened an emergency meeting with union leaders to coordinate the protest measures. The Histadrut labor federation is worried the current agreement may crush the Israeli airlines. It has warned that the new agreement would lead to massive layoffs in the aviation industry that could affect tens of thousands of people directly employed by the carriers or dependent on them for their livelihood.
The unions would like to add provisions to protect local operators, such as funding for security measures and landing rights in major European airports.
“Israeli citizens will not be part of an agreement that sacrifices thousands of families just for the sake of currying favor with foreign airlines,” the Histadrut said in a statement on Thursday.
“The transportation minister promised us about a year ago that he would make sure the airlines stay robust, but he is now the first to stab us in the back and kill the airline industry; we have no choice but to cease operations,” Edri said.
“We are still pro-Open Skies, pro-consumer and pro-competition, but not if that means killing the Israeli airline industry. We want this item off the agenda [of Sunday’s cabinet meeting] and we demand there be meaningful negotiations to tailor this agreement to the Israeli operators.”
The agreement was finalized in July 2012 following three years of negotiations, but the government said it would not vote on it until after the Jan. 22 elections because under Israeli law no sweeping decisions can be made in the run-up to elections. On Wednesday, Katz and Lapid asked that the agreement be voted on during Sunday’s cabinet meeting.
The agreement includes a five-year implementation period that is designed to allow the Israeli airlines to adjust to the new situation. The gradual liberalization of the airline industry is aimed at encouraging more direct flights from Israel to European destinations and to reduce fares for both Israeli and European tourists. The increased flow of tourists on both sides is expected to create jobs and help the economy on both ends.
The government has vowed to bolster its spending on airline security so that it covers 80 percent of the costs involved, in addition to 5 million shekels ($1.38 million) it would spend on security every year for the next five years. Katz has instructed Civil Aviation Authority head Giora Romm to assist the Israeli operators and guide them through the transition period to make their integration into the European markets proceed as fast as possible.
Katz said on Thursday that agreement would be a major boon to Israeli airlines. “I am convinced that the executives in the airline industries can lead their companies to prosperity and success even in a competitive environment that helps the entire economy,” Katz said.
El Al CEO Eliezer Shkedi said on Thursday night that in its current form, the agreement means the Israeli airlines would have to play soccer against rugby players on an international playing field.
“The government is led down a reckless path. The Europeans have alliances and they can fix prices and coordinate flight schedules because they are subject to European law, but we are bound by the Israeli law, and we cannot coordinate prices,” Shkedi said. “This is unfair. U.K.-based airlines would be allowed to add more flights, but when we would be denied requests to operate more flights into Heathrow. It’s not just about this or that airline, it involves the state. All we want is to match our employment terms lest we have a situation in which Ricky Cohen from Lod is out of work but Brigitta from Germany has a job.”
The Israel Hotels Association and the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association have called on the Israeli government to vote yes on the agreement. Other organizations in the tourism industry also favor the agreement, including some car rental companies, the Israeli Tour Guide Association and other bodies that are expected to get a boost from the increase in tourism.
View original Israel Hayom publication at: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=8725