Israel's Labor Court Orders El Al Pilots Back to Work

Move comes after two days of disruptions over dispute about older pilots’ salaries.

An El Al Airlines 747 plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
David Bachar

A Tel Aviv court ordered El Al pilots to return to work Monday and instructed them not to disrupt operations, two days after a labor slowdown forced Israel’s flagship airline carrier to cancel and reschedule flights.

“Unilateral moves by management forced workers to act improperly themselves, with both sides opting to employ strong-arm tactics that were indifferent to the harm it caused the public,” said Tel Aviv Regional Labor Court Judge Ofira Dagan-Tuchmacher.

El Al Airlines said it hoped to resume its normal flight schedule immediately. Its shares were up 2.9% to 2.40 shekels (64 cents).

Several El Al flights were canceled on Saturday and Sunday after pilots called in sick and others declined to replace them, in what they said was a fight to preserve the salaries of their colleagues aged 65 and older.

At issue is El Al’s adoption of international standards which bar pilots over the age of 65 from flying international commercial flights. Pilots are only eligible for a pension starting at age 67 and management offered them alternative jobs for the interim two years. However, the jobs pay half or less than a pilot’s salary.

It was the second time in recent months that pilots acted to disrupt El Al flights, after a two-week labor action last November.

Pilots’ representatives told the labor court that union officials had not orchestrated the slowdown, and that the wave of employees calling in sick was real. However, they noted that most of the health concerns were psychological, not physical. “The law bars pilots from flying if they are under psychological pressure,” said one.

The court, however, said it could not ignore the fact that the calls suddenly emerged just as the issue of older pilots’ salaries emerged.

Overnight Sunday, union leaders and management met to discuss the issue, which has been a bone of contention for more than two years.

Management prompted the labor action by unilaterally cutting salaries for the affected pilots, starting with their January paychecks.

“That wasn’t a smart move,” said Histadrut labor federation Chairman Avi Nissenkorn, who intervened in the dispute. “We’re trying to solve the crisis and they decided to drop pay for pilots over age 65. You don’t take a unilateral step like that in the middle of a crisis,” he added.