Israeli Airlines Threaten Strike From Sunday if Cabinet Approves EU Open Skies Agreement

El Al shares sank 6 percent on Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on news of impending vote on pact, as investors fear further damage to carrier's bottom line.

The trade union committees of Israeli airlines El Al, Arkia and Israir threatened Thursday to go out on strike starting Sunday if the cabinet approves the open skies agreement between Israel and European Union member states.

The Histadrut labor federation has already declared a labor dispute over the issue, so the workers are legally able to go out on strike next week.

El Al CEO Eliezer Shkedy urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today not to put the issue to a cabinet vote on Sunday, saying that in its current iteration the agreement is tantamount to "sending Israeli aviation into battle with its hands tied."

Continuing, the former Israel Air Force chief said the open skies agreement "does not provide for fair competition, in an extreme way. The work of all the entities that dealt with the matter has been, in my opinion, superficial and unprofessional. We received no answers and we were not shown any economic work despite our request and in total defiance of the demand of the Knesset Finance Committee. I hope the Israeli cabinet will not lead the entire economy into chaos by means of an irresponsible move," Shkedy said.

The agreement would open the skies to competition by adding destinations incrementally, over the course of five years. In the wake of reports of the scheduled cabinet discussion of the pact, El Al shares lost 6% on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

Investors fear that genuine competition in the aviation industry could further erode the earnings of the financially troubled carrier.

In the past five years El Al shares have lost 70% of their value, due in part to the global aviation slump but also as a result of the airline's poor performance.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, speaking today at a conference at Herzliya's Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, said heightened competition in the aviation industry was "inevitable" and the open skies agreement will be approved soon.

The pact has already been initialed; after the cabinet's anticipated approval it will go to Katz for his signature.

"With all the protection that can be given to El Al or Israeli companies in the open skies agreement, it is important to remember that it is good for the citizens of Israel. More destinations at less cost, more incoming tourism and an increase in aviation activity in the State of Israel," Katz said.

In a separate matter, Katz noted at the conference that on May 9 the cornerstone will be laid for the new airport at Timna. The airport will be named for Ilan and Asaf Ramon.

Katz said the rockets fired at Eilat from Egypt's Sinai Wednesday underscored the importance of an additional airport in southern Israel, at Timna.

Nir Kafri