El Al's Deal With Pilots Marks Beginning of Labor Battles to Come

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An El Al Boeing flies over the clouds.
El Al shares closed down on Monday by 2.6% to 3.02 shekels (79 cents).Credit: Boeing

El Al Airlines’ three-week battle with its pilots came to a formal conclusion on Sunday when the two sides signed a labor accord, but new wars between the management and the unions lie ahead, and will unfold over the next two years.

The first comes as the CEO David Maimon and his staff negotiate a labor accord covering all of the company’s 6,000 employees by the November 2017 deadline. Until then, the pilots are taking the stand that the deal isn’t final until a company-wide agreement is reached.

The second war will come in the months leading up to May 2018, when a set of new rules for pilots known as Flight Time Limitations, which have been adopted by Europe, the United States and Israel, come into force.

Aimed at ensuring that pilots are well rested and can fly safely, the FTL sets a ceiling on the number of hours they can work every week, including flying time, travel to and from the airport, wait times for delayed flights and pre-flight briefings. The practical effect for pilots will be a limit on their work hours, which will cut sharply into their overtime pay unless new terms are negotiated.

El Al shares closed down on Monday by 2.6% to 3.02 shekels (79 cents).

For now, the pilots did well in the agreement they managed to reach after a three-week standoff with management that led to canceled and delayed flights. The pilots will be getting an 8.75% raise, much more than the 7.25% the two sides had tentatively agreed upon a week earlier. That will come on top of a 3% raise all El Al employees received last year.

In addition, the management agreed to end the practice of leasing planes and their crews from foreign airlines, a practice that had grown during the dispute with pilots as the carrier sought to fill holes in its schedule.

In exchange for the concessions, pilots agreed to end the costly practice of so-called split flights, where pilots fly one leg of a round-trip route and return home as passengers. They committed to keeping to actual flight times rather than artificially running up overtime with delays, and to ensuring labor quiet.

The management also won the war for public opinion, successfully portraying the pilots as indifferent to other El Al employees and to travelers. Now, with the negotiations getting underway for a company-wide agreement, the pilots are likely to feel obligated to restore their image by coming to the defense of their fellow employees.

They have their work cut out for them. As one flight attendant explained, “Those who already had a lot [the pilots] got even more and those who don’t remain poor. While both sides are celebrating signing an agreement, I worry about my children.”

El Al and the unions have already arrived at some preliminary understandings on granting permanent employee status to some temporary staff, improving health insurance and committing to no layoffs when the airline puts the next generation of low-maintenance Boeing 7878s into service. So far there’s been no talk of a pay raise.

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