Over the weekend, El Al Israel Airlines delayed a flight from Tel Aviv to Milan that had been scheduled to take off Friday at 2:45 P.M. until Saturday, due to what the airline said was a crew shortage.
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But unlike the cancelled flights that have plagued the carrier in recent weeks, the latest snafu is symptomatic of a much bigger problem: El Al is contending with a shortage of pilots, particularly among those flying medium-haul flights on Boeing 737s. The shortage is likely to grow worse when a new European Union aviation regulation goes into effect that from the end of the year will bar pilots over the age of 65 from flying in European airspace.
Currently Israeli pilots can serve as captains until age 65 and for the two years after that continue as co-pilots, or first officers as they are formally known, with special permission from the Civil Aviation Authority. Thus the new European regulations risk grounding several dozen Israeli pilots in the upper age group.
At this point, it is not clear if the Civil Aviation Authority will seek an exemption from the EU regarding the new rule. El Al, which declined to comment on the matter, has on its staff about 520 pilots.
At its height, the earlier labor problem forced El Al to cancel four flights to Europe on a single day after the pilots, whose flights were booked by more than 600 passengers, called in sick. In response, El Al leased planes and crew from its rival, Israir, for an estimated half million shekels ($143,000) and two weeks ago signed a new labor agreement with the pilots flying its Boeing 737s.
The labor pact signed with the pilots this month was meant to address their concerns amid the changes, including provisions for longer rest periods between flights and at least one day a week when they would not be required to work.
“A pilot who is not fit for a flight due to fatigue, won’t fly,” said Yosi Shuv, chairman of National Association of Israeli Pilots during the labor dispute at El Al a couple of weeks ago.
El AL pilots have been feeling the impact of the so-called Open Skies aviation liberalization pact between Israel and the EU last year, which has led to a significant increase in flights by El Al and other carriers serving the Israel-Europe market. Most of these additional flights have been flown on El Al’s Boeing 737s, some of which have been diverted to the airline’s new discount carrier, Up Airlines.
Under the new labor arrangement, El Al’s 737 pilots are being given easier access to the airline’s computer system to plan their work schedules, but the agreement has not solved the bigger problem of the pilot shortage. In response, management has begun recruiting some 50 new pilots, a record number, for the airline’s pilots course. El Al is requiring that in addition to 1,000 flying hours to qualify as head pilot, recruits must have Israeli citizenship and have completed the Israel Air Force’s pilots’ course or similar civil or military training in Israel or abroad.