Amid Record Flight Numbers, El Al Scrounges for Airplane Cabin Crews

Airline takes on flight attendants who had been laid off or have yet to complete training

El Al planes parked at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv.
David Bachar

Israels record numbers of foreign tourists this year have led El Al Airlines to press into service flight attendants who had been laid off as well as aircrew members who are still in training, during the Passover peak travel season.

The Central Bureau of Statistics reported on Sunday a 24% rise in tourist arrivals in the first quarter, to 739,000, from the first three months of 2016. In March alone the rise was 22%, to 293,000.

The figure represents a new record since the 50-day war Israel fought with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014. Operation Protective Edge caused airlines to suspend flights briefly and tourists to cancel reservations. Israels tourism industry has struggled to recover, but the numbers for the first quarter of 2017 exceeded those of the same period in 2014, before the war, when 705,000 tourists arrived in Israel.

Tourist arrivals to Israel, '000s / month*

The Tourism Ministry said spending by tourists at hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops amounted to 4 billion shekels ($1.1 billion) in the three months, up 730 million shekels from the same time in 2016.

But the crunch of foreign tourists flying into Israel and Israelis flying abroad for vacation caught El Al, Israels flagship carrier, short-staffed.

The number of Israelis going abroad (see story on this page) climbed 12.5% to 1.22 million in the first quarter from the same time a year earlier — and thats before the big vacation periods of Passover, the summer and the fall High Holy Days. Last year, the number of Israeli departures reached 6.8 million, up from 4.8 million three years before.

The heavy traffic has pushed El Al to the limit. With an estimated 1.6 million people passing through Ben-Gurion International Airport this month, the carrier will have to fly 530,000 of them to retain its market shares of just under 35%. That meant scheduling six to seven more daily flights than it did the same time in 2016.

To do that, El Al has been calling back flight attendants they fired after working for the airline for five years, rather than give them tenure in their jobs.

They have also given cabin assignments to flight attendants who have completed most of their training but, for example, may not have completed the course on night flights.

El Al is also quietly leasing jets to make up for the shortfall at its Sun dOr from companies like SmartLynx.

El Al said safety and service were not being hurt by the moves. All the crews working on flights are ready and trained for their jobs as required by the rules and requirements, a spokesman said.