The Israel Aviation Authority forces the country's airlines to conduct all their plane maintenance work within Israel, which means they wind up paying significantly more than they would abroad, the airlines claim. The three airlines - El Al, Arkia and Israir - are seeking permission to have their repairs conducted abroad, essentially opening up the local airline repair market to competition.

They want this to happen alongside the Transportation Ministry's plan to sign an open skies agreement with the European Union, which would expose the airlines to competition from European companies.

Currently, the airlines can have maintenance work conducted either in Israel or through foreign companies that received advance approval from the IAA. But in practice, this limits them to Israeli companies, say the airlines: The IAA demands that any foreign companies be thoroughly reviewed before they're allowed to work on Israeli planes, but does not manage to perform the reviews due to a lack of manpower. To date, it has not certified a single foreign company.

In comparison, European airlines conduct their repairs through a wide range of companies around the world.

"The Israeli airlines need to be granted the same access to these repair shops in order to reduce their maintenance costs and increase their ability to compete against European airlines," said a senior industry source.

The Transportation Ministry stated in response yesterday that the issue was unconnected to the open skies agreement in the works. Unlike the latter, this is a unilateral matter, it noted. The ministry is currently working on formulating standards to let local airlines use foreign repair facilities, and they are expected to go into effect within two months, it said.

Meanwhile, the airlines and their employees are maintaining their pressure on the ministry over the open skies agreement, which they say could destroy them.

El Al employees declared a labor dispute over the issue. Tomorrow, the two-week waiting period ends, after which they will be free to launch sanctions.

Worker representatives met with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz over the weekend, and told him that the open-skies treaty could cost them their jobs. Katz stated in response that any deal would protect Israeli airlines.

Union leader Asher Edrey said Katz had listened to their concerns.