Foreign Ministry move threatens Israeli airlines' winter schedule

Ben Gurion Airport cancelled flights  photo: Siegfried Modola, Reuters

The ministry is refusing to continue employing flight security personnel overseas after this year.

Hundreds of flights scheduled by Israeli airlines for the 2019 winter season are in jeopardy. The reason: a dispute over the employment of flight security personnel by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A letter that has reached "Globes", signed by Ministry of Foreign Affairs director general Yuval Rotem, informs Eytan Ben-David, acting national security advisor and head of the National Security Council, that the employment of 1,200 flight security personnel assigned to Israeli airlines will cease on January 1, 2019. The consequence is that the airlines will not be able to fly to Israel from international airports. The airlines in question are El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. (TASE: ELAL) (including its Sun d'Or brand), Israir Airlines and Tourism Ltd. and Arkia Airlines Ltd..

If this story sounds familiar, there's a reason. Last January, "Globes" published a news item on the risk to about 1,000 summer flights by Israeli airlines following an announcement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that it would not issue authorizations to security personnel. At the time, the ministry claimed, among other things, that there was a shortage of manpower because of the growth in the number of routes flown by the Israeli airlines.

The security procedures for Israeli airlines overseas are determined by the Israel Security Agency (ISA). Because of security incidents in recent years, the demands have become stricter, increasing the need for manpower.

The entity that carries out the ISA's instructions is the security division of El Al, which is responsible for securing the flights of all three Israeli airlines. Financing comes mainly from the Ministry of Finance. In 2017, funding for aviation security totaled NIS 825 million, NIS 75 million more than in 2016.

After some fierce exchanges of letters between the Ministry of Finance and then El Al CEO David Maimon, the Ministry of Finance eventually increased the headcount by 200, but even then the signs were that this would not be adequate.

Now, Rotem is warning that in January 2019 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will not be able to continue to employ aviation security personnel through Israeli missions overseas. "Therefore," he writes, "the relevant entities need to prepare in advance for this situation and find alternative ways of employing workers overseas." Rotem states that the matter has been raised with Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Benjamin Netanyahu, who is aware that the 1,200 aviation security personnel will be employed only until December 31, 2018.

Following Rotem's letter, El Al chairman Eli Defes wrote to Ben-David, warning that "without these workers the aviation security system cannot be sustained" and that "any solution will require deep thought and complicated and extensive arrangements that will vary from one country to another." Defes refers, for example, to the outsourcing of aviation security, or the direct employment of security personnel by the airlines. This would mean that consular restrictions would be liable to apply to these employees, for example in moving between countries, and difficulties would be liable to arise in applying local laws, such as bans on discrimination in employment on the basis of race or extraction. At present, in accordance with the ISA's directives, only Jews are employed in Israeli aviation security.

"My understanding is that other government ministries have so far refused to take on the employment of these personnel," Defes writes. He demands that a solution should be found quickly, since the winter schedule is around the corner in an industry that works from one season to the next. The current situation means that Israir and Arkia, which plan flights to new destinations without confirmation that security teams will be stationed there, are selling a product that might not exist.

Their solutions include operating flights using a foreign code, that is, through overseas airlines that are not bound by Israel security rules, thus circumventing them in a way that is injurious to the local industry and to passengers.

Defes writes that the Israeli government cannot decide to stop employing the security workers in January without finding a solution by July, "so that we do not find ourselves in a crisis and a complete halt to Israeli flights."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs chose not to comment on the report, but it is hard to ignore the competitive difficulty in which the Israeli airlines find themselves. On the one hand, the state (through the ISA) sets security rules for flights by Israeli airlines - rules that are at once an asset and a burden - and on the other hand, while the state is encouraging foreign airlines to operate more and more routes to Israel through grants amounting to hundreds of thousands of euros, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs poses a threat to the Israeli airlines' winter schedules. Moreover, who will be able to meet the criteria set by the ISA besides Israeli government employees, specifically employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Is the ministry's latest move really aimed at the Ministry of Finance, to obtain funding for more security personnel?

"Ministries' quarrels harm us

El Al: "El Al Security, which is responsible for the security of Israeli airlines overseas, will act in accordance with the state's decisions on the matter but it is clear that a decision cannot be made on terminating the employment of most of the security personnel without finding another solution for employing them and for the matters dealt with by the state, including by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. El Al Security is being asked to confirm flights for the winter season, after the end of 2018, and in the light of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' announcement, no decision can be made on the matter, with all the consequences that flow from that."

Israir: "Decisions on the security profile of the Israeli airlines, Israir among them, belongs to the security services, as are decisions on implementation. The quarrels between the various government ministries hurt Israir in its profit line and its competitiveness. In the current season, Israir is paying a heavy price, with 50,000 of its passengers flown on foreign flights because of the limitation on the availability of security staff.

"We appeal to all concerned to show responsibility and to respond quickly to implement a solution that will enable Israeli aviation to operate under non-restrictive conditions."

Arkia: "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs' announcement reflects a reality already well known to all those involved - the situation in which El Al provides security services to its competitors is impossible. The Antitrust Commissioner made this clear in its recent examination of the matter as part of its review of the proposed merger between El Al and Israir, which it opposed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs' announcement provides an opportunity to change the existing situation, which should happen anyway."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on June 18, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Ben Gurion Airport cancelled flights  photo: Siegfried Modola, Reuters
Ben Gurion Airport cancelled flights photo: Siegfried Modola, Reuters
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