‘The Flight Was Changed Five Times’: The New Problem for Israeli Airlines

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Israeli El Al airline aircraft are seen on the tarmac at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, east of Tel Aviv, on July 7, 2020.
Israeli El Al airline aircraft are seen on the tarmac at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, east of Tel Aviv, on July 7, 2020.Credit: Jack Guez / AFP

Over the past few weeks, Israeli travelers were notified of frequent changes to their flights booked through Israeli airlines, as the Israeli aviation industry, faced with a shortage of security workers, struggles to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

The current lack of security workers is inhibiting Israeli airlines – such as Arkia, Israir and El Al – from gaining the necessary approvals needed to operate flights to certain destinations in the summer months. International airlines are not subjected to the same security protocols, and are therefore unaffected by this shortage – putting Israeli airlines at a disadvantage.

Though the security arrangements are run by El Al, the workers are employed by the Foreign Ministry, and the Shin Bet security service is responsible for their training and the nature of their operations.

“They are now approving our flights a month at a time, since around 30 percent of the flights people have booked for July and August still haven't received approval for security reasons,” said an aviation industry official. Another source tried to calm things down, claiming that by the first two weeks of July there will be enough workers trained for the job, and the flights are expected to be approved.

Like other parts of the aviation industry, the security administration – which handles the flights of Israeli airlines – significantly reduced its operations at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The drastic drop in the number of flights made employing so many workers unnecessary – and a large number were fired or furloughed.

Now, Israeli airlines want to return and operate as many flights as possible, according to demand, especially as summer approaches. But they are unable to receive approval for flights to some destinations because of the difficulty in hiring new security staff, or in bringing back employees who were furloughed – some of whom prefer to continue receiving unemployment benefits.

‘They won’t let us recover’

“They simply won’t let us recover. There is no destination that we don’t have a problem with,” said the industry official. “They can tell us not to fly to a new destination, or that it’s possible to fly to this destination, but on different days or at different hours. Customers receive updates on changes to their flight that can move it forward or push it back by days – which may not be work for them and they could very well cancel the flight.”

This is what happened to Anat and her two brothers, who bought tickets three weeks ago on El Al for a family vacation in Nice for July. Since they bought the tickets, El Al has already sent them five updates on changes in the flight times, said Anat.

“Around every three days we received a message about some change. This has never happened before – we booked a flight and they won't stop sending us emails about changes. I even received an email saying that I can cancel the flight and receive a credit voucher. It’s really strange, usually you book a flight, and you take into account that there could be some small change, but in this case we have not stopped receiving messages on changes, and because of all these updates it is possible that my sister won’t be able to join us on the new date of the flight," she said.

Arkia says that if the situation continues and they are not given approval for flights because of the shortage of security employees, the company will be forced to furlough dozens of pilots and at least 50 employees.

“The Israeli airlines are trying to recover from the most serious crisis they have ever known, and now the security system comes and strikes them a harsh blow because it prevents them from flying to many destinations, because they claim there is a lack of workers,” said Oz Berlowitz, the deputy chairman of Arkia and the CEO of Arkia International. “The harsh meaning of this is that pilots, stewards and ground crew will be furloughed or fired, while the foreign airlines, who are exempt from the security arrangements that obligate us, will celebrate at the expense of the Israeli companies.”

“Israelis don’t want to fly to Europe en masse and we want to fly to new destinations in the Greek Isles and they don’t approve it for us. This year actually, after the huge crisis, Israel needs to take responsibility and approve the flights, because not approving them will mean shutting down the plane, and then a foreign airline will fly instead of an Israeli one – it’s simply insane,” said Berlowitz.

"Every time someone puts a roadblock in front of an Israeli airline, it hurts them badly," said another aviation industry official. “They want to fly to new, challenging places in the Greek Isles, but the more destinations there are, the more security guards you need, and that means opening special stations and this is challenging as far as staffing is concerned, because it is hard to recruit them today. Those who were fired or were furloughed won’t necessarily want to come back, and maybe they’ve already been hired elsewhere. We need to solve this and change the security organization and thin it out. It is excessive and unjustified.”

‘An accelerated process of bringing employees back from furloughs'

A number of people in the Israeli airlines have complained that the Finance Ministry has not provided a budget to hire security employees. “They aren’t freeing up resources, only asking to see what flights are scheduled, and on the basis of the flights they will hire the staff but this is a situation of the chicken and the egg, because some of the flights don’t receive approval because there are no workers, and in addition, it takes time to train new people,” he said.

The Finance Ministry said that since April, the aviation security administration has been rehiring employees to return to proper operations on behalf of the Israeli airlines. “Every month they hire more workers according to the expected growth in demand. So far, the budget has not been the obstacle to hiring employees,” said the ministry.

The aviation security administration said: “With the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis and the drastic drop in operations of Israeli airlines, the Israeli aviation security administration was forced to reduce significantly the number of security employees around the world. In recent months, and in light of the gradual growth in the operations of the Israeli airlines, the security division has begun an accelerated process of returning workers from furlough, hiring additional workers, carrying out the necessary training processes and sending security teams to various destinations around the world.”

“Despite the fact that these processes take a long time, the division is making every effort in order to allow, already at this time, the maximum operations requested by the airlines in a very large deployment of destinations all over the globe,” said the security administration. The Israeli security staff in Israel and overseas “will continue to work intensively, with the investment of many resources, to increase the workforce of the organization, so it can provide the necessary response for additional operations of Israeli airlines.”

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