El Al Flights Canceled as Labor Crisis Escalates; Union Threatens Strike

El Al says it would offer a full refund over canceled reservations or rescheduling and impose no fees for the rest of November.

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Labor strife at El Al Airlines grew worse on Sunday as the carrier canceled and rescheduled flights, and labor unions threatened to widen the dispute between management and pilots to include the entire workforce.

The airline canceled Flight 081 to Bangkok Sunday and rescheduled Flight 095 from Saturday night to Sunday morning. Flight 027 departed on time from Ben-Gurion International Airport to New York but on a jet leased from another airline.

In an attempt to mitigate the damage to its reputation and inconvenience to customers, El Al said it would offer people who cancel reservations or reschedule their flights because of disruption a full refund and impose no fees for the rest of November.

Sources said the move will add significantly to the losses the carrier has been suffering in its battle with pilots that took a turn for the worse just over a week ago after management adopted a tougher line toward the labor slowdown by pilots. El Al shares fell 4.1% to 3.36 shekels (86 cents) on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on Sunday, the biggest loser among stocks traded in the TA-100 index.

The El Al workers committee said Sunday it would be holding an emergency meeting on Sunday amid concerns that cabin and ground crews were losing work hours due to canceled flights and the company’s practice of leasing jets. It said it was particularly concerned about the airline’s approximately 2,000 temporary employees, who account for about a third of the total.

Union leaders will seek authorization for a company-wide labor dispute that would allow them to call a strike after a two-week cooling-off period.

“The livelihood of hundreds of El Al workers are in danger in the coming year,” said Avi Eizner, chairman of the El Al workers committee, explaining that they were vulnerable to being laid off. “El Al management does not concern itself with these thousands of invisible workers, who make a minimum salary.”

El Al management responded that it had no choice but to lease jets from foreign carriers, which include their crews, to make up for shortfalls caused by pilots’ calling in sick as part of the pressure tactics. Others have refused to fly roundtrips.

“El Al’s CEO has said that the leased aircraft will be returned if the pilots undertake to stop flying in one direction,” the airline said in a statement. “We encourage employees not to believe [false information] being spread about them that do not reflect the management’s plans.”

Apart from their concern about temporary employees, the workers committee is concerned that the introduction of Boeing 787s to El Al’s fleet will lead to layoffs because the advanced jets require less maintenance. There were also reports that El Al plans to develop training academies overseas for foreign pilots to help cope with the shortage of pilots in Israel.