El Al planes parked at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday. (Ariel Schalit / Associated…)
JERUSALEM — As Israeli airline workers went on strike in protest, Israel's government approved an "open skies" agreement with the European Union that will give European carriers greater access to the lucrative Israeli tourism market.
The government hailed the agreement as a breakthrough reform to liberalize the commercial flight market, boost incoming tourism and generate economic growth.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the decision and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz congratulated the government. He characterized the agreement as the first significant action by the new coalition government to lower the cost of living, since it will encourage competition that should lead to lower fares for Israelis traveling to Europe.
But workers for three Israeli airlines -- El Al, Israir and Arkia-- fiercely protested the agreement, which they warned could threaten the financial health of the Israeli companies and cost thousands of jobs.
"There will be nothing new here tomorrow morning, only... European companies trampling the Israeli airlines and our livelihood," Asher Edri, head of El-Al's employee committee, told reporters en route to coordinate protests with the Histadrut, the national labor federation.
El-Al workers were said to be on strike until further notice. Israel's airport authority employees are expected to walk out Tuesday in solidarity, temporarily paralyzing the country's airports and border crossings.
"We are not against competition, but competition must be fair," Israir chief Uri Sirkis told local media.
Citing security costs of as much as $2 million a year for each of the 45 aircraft operated by Israel's three airlines, Sirkis warned that the carriers would have difficulty offering competitive prices, and could lose passengers to their European rivals.
Government funding for those security expenses is expected to increase from 60% to 80%, but the airlines are demanding full coverage by the government. The Israeli carriers say only they need such heavy security, given Israel's susceptibility as a terrorism target.
The "open skies" agreement -- negotiated for years and initialed last March-- will take effect in mid-2014 and be implemented over a five-year period.
The government's move sent El-Al's stock price sinking Sunday. The formerly state-run carrier, a private company since 2004, was already in a tough position. With a new investor, it now faces the likelihood of restructuring and downsizing.
Information on arrivals, departures and cancellations at Ben-Gurion International Airport can be found on the Israel Airports Authority website.
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