El Al Cancels Flights as Pilots Earning $20K per Month Protest Over Working Conditions

Talks on new contract have reached crisis point as Israel's national airline adjusts to new rules limiting pilots' work hours.

An El Al plane on the tarmac at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Daniel Bar-On

A battle between El Al Airlines’ management and its pilots has emerged into the open in recent days as the airline abandoned its policy of accommodating pilots’ demands, allowing flights to be canceled rather than give in.

Sunday night, Flight 027 to New York was canceled at the last minute and Monday's Flight 095 to Beijing was pulled after management said no pilots were prepared to fly round-trip on the routes.

El Al shares fell 1.7% to 3.50 shekels (91 cents) on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on news of the dispute.

Until now El Al management has acceded to pilots’ demands that they fly only one way on a round trip – and get paid to fly as passengers in business class on the return leg. But after the workers’ committee declared a labor dispute over the weekend, CEO David Maimon has decided to take a tougher line.

Canceling the two flights will cost the airline tens of thousands of shekels, but until now the pilots’ union, led by Nir Tzuk, has bet correctly that the carrier wouldn’t dare give up revenues or risk leaving passengers stranded.

Labor relations at El Al have traditionally been fraught but under a collective labor agreement signed in June 2015, employees, including pilots, promised the airline industrial peace for the next three years. In return, workers got a collective $3 million bonus from a series of pay raises.

But labor relations have unraveled anyhow in anticipation of new rules for pilots, known as Flight Time Limitations, which have been adopted by Europe, the United States and Israel. Aimed at ensuring that pilots are well rested and can fly safely, the FTL sets a ceiling of 60 hours of work a week for a pilot as well as a maximum of 190 a month and 1,000 a year. The hours include not just flying time but travel to and from the airport, waiting times for delayed flights and pre-flight briefings.

The problem for El Al pilots is that over the years they have developed, with management’s consent, an informal system of booking large numbers of overtime hours – today amounting to 75 over the basic monthly number required.

The overtime is a major supplement to pilots’ pay because the hourly rate is much higher – starting at a 50% premium and reaching as much as 230% if the extra hours exceed 85 in a month. To reach the number, the pilots have employed creative ways.

Until recently the pilots’ union was engaged in secret talks with management about how to realign pay so it can conform with the new limits imposed by the FTL. But the negotiations have been rocky because pay now is based on tacit understandings and non-standard work practice.

To step up the pressure, the pilots have exploited the airline’s chronic shortage of pilots. Pilots have refused to report for work unless they are guaranteed they will only have to fly one way. That means El Al has to employ a second crew for the return flight while the first crew sits in business class and gets paid as if it were working, while depriving the airline of profitable business class seats.

Another tactic has been to call in sick at the last minute, as safety rules allow them to do. These tactics have had the intended effect of costing the airline heavily. Last month, the average pay for pilots reached 98,000 shekels, a third more than a year earlier.

As part of the dogfight with pilots, management has not only refused to give into pilot demands on one-way flights but has begun distributing facts and figures on pilots’ compensation under the title “El Al Pilot’s Dubious Deal.” The shows that the airlines’ 600 pilots, including captains and first officers, earn an average of 80,000 shekels a month, more than eight times the average wage nationally.

The facts and figures have put the unions and the Histadrut labor federation in an embarrassing position, since salaries like that make it difficult to talk about defending workers’ rights. The pilots’ workers’ committee blamed Monday the canceled flights on management failure and charged it with trying to convert El Al from an airline into a travel company.

“Management keeps coming back to the pilots to ask them to work double and triple a full-time shift, much more than pilots at other airlines,” it said, adding that Maimon and controlling shareholder Tami Borowitz are collecting “fat dividends.”