Brussels, Vienna, Nice, Tblisi, are some of the destinations that appeared on El Al’s schedule yesterday, but the flights to them did not take place. The unlucky passengers received a message informing them of the cancellation of the flights "due to unforeseen operational circumstances." These operational circumstances are a combination of a Boeing Dreamliner aircraft with an engine breakdown that has been taken out of El Al’s fleet, and difficulties in crewing its Boeing 737s, the narrow-bodied aircraft used on most of the airline’s short-haul flights.
Passengers have been encountering these operational circumstances more and more recently, as El Al flights are cancelled just as the Shavuot holiday weekend approaches, when about 300,000 travelers are due to leave and enter Israel.
Dispute with pilots
The congestion at the airport is the consequence of a manpower shortage that is not unique to Israel and is having its effects at European airports as well, especially at Schiphol in Amsterdam. The shortage is seeping into many jobs in aviation and tourism, including the pilots’ cockpit. But at El Al, the story is a little different. The airline has been trying to find crews to man flights for which it has sold tickets but for which there is no advance manning schedule. Its attempts have proved fruitless, and passengers are paying the price.
Behind the euphemism "operational circumstances" lies a profound dispute between El Al’s pilots and its management. Talks between the sides have not led to the hoped-for solution. As far as the airline’s pilots are concerned, the first condition for a thaw in relations is for the management to approve a separate union for them from the general union at El Al and for them to act as an independent bargaining unit. This is not an unthinkable condition in the aviation industry and in other industries in which there is separate worker representation for different segments of the workforce. Since 1982, El Al’s pilots have joined the general union at El Al, and the Histadrut (General Federation of Labor in Israel) adamantly opposes separate representation for the pilots.
Apart from this condition, the El Al pilots are demanding that, given the airline’s swifter than forecast recovery, their pay should be restored to its pre-pandemic level. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the pilots had to agree to a 31% cut in their basic pay in a labor agreement valid until 2026. El Al CEO Dina Ben-Tal Ganancia has said that there will be a compromise with the pilots and that the sides will talk, but at this stage a compromise seems a long way off.
Passengers wary of booking with El Al
El Al claims that alternative arrangements have been found for the vast majority of passengers whose flights have been cancelled, but as other flights fill up it will become harder to find seats for them. Meanwhile, consumers should know their rights: by law, the company must repay their fares and pay compensation of between NIS 1,300 and NIS 3,100, depending on the flight distance.
El Al is paying a high price for the flight cancelations: not only does it have to pay compensation to passengers who don’t accept any alternative offered to them, but it could be sued for other damage caused to passengers by flight cancelations. The real price, however, is the loss of confidence in the airline on the part of potential customers, confidence that it needs more than ever, in order to rehabilitate its revenue after two extremely challenging years.
Many people are wary of booking tickets with an airline that might not take off, especially when there are alternatives. Confidence is also a matter of due transparency. El Al cannot for long make do with the excuse of "operational circumstances" when it sometimes notifies passengers when they are already on their way to the airport. These days, passengers have access to more information than ever, and it would be better if it were come directly from the airline itself. The relationship between a business and its customers are in a different place from where it once was, and El Al needs to recognize that.
El Al stated in response: "We regret the inconvenience caused to our passengers by unexpected disruptions in operating a flight. El Al staff are doing all they can to find alternative solutions, through another El Al flight or through flights of other airlines."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 2, 2022.
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