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Israel approves 'Open Skies' deal with EU

Monday - 4/22/2013, 3:20am  ET

Passengers wait in a departure hall at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, April 21, 2013. Israel's three airlines went on strike Sunday over a proposed "Open Skies" deal with the European Union that union workers say jeopardizes their jobs and could even cause the local airline industry to collapse. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

IAN DEITCH
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's Cabinet on Sunday approved a deal to allow more EU flights, hours after the country's airlines went on strike out of concerns that the agreement would cost them jobs and possibly even ruin their companies.

The approval of "Open Skies" raised the possibility of a longer, broader strike by Israel's major labor union. Already, hundreds of people scheduled to fly on Israel's three carriers, El Al, Arkia and Israir, have been stranded.

Later Sunday, Israel's main airline El-Al expanded the strike to include all its flights. The powerful Histadrut labor union said it would shut down the entire Ben-Gurion international airport on Tuesday in solidarity with the Israeli airlines.

As hundreds of union workers protested outside, the Cabinet overwhelmingly approved the agreement, which allows more carriers to serve the Israeli market.

"The Open Skies reform is good for Israel. It will lead to the lowering of prices and increase competition, and it will not harm work places in the market, rather the opposite," Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said.

He said the deal would not be implemented until April 2014.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the deal. "The goal of the reform that we approved today is to lower the prices of flights to and from Israel and to increase incoming tourism," he said.

Tourism is a major industry in Israel, bringing in more than 3.5 million visitors a year.

Critics warned that Israel's small fleet of planes, along with high security costs, would hinder it from competing with larger international airlines.

Ofer Eini, head of the Histadrut, told Israel Radio that he favors Open Skies, but the deal needs to be amended to secure local jobs. He said the arrangement could cause local airlines to collapse, warning that thousands of jobs are at risk.

Although Sunday's strike did not affect flights by international carriers, Eini indicated the work stoppage could be broadened. He did not elaborate, but a strike by unionized airport workers or security staff, for instance, could bring the whole airport to a standstill.

A spokeswoman for El Al, Israel's national carrier, said of 22 flights planned for Sunday, 14 were brought forward before the strike began and eight were canceled. She said the strike affected hundreds of passengers.

Travelers were given the option to transfer to other flights or get their money back, she said. She requested anonymity in line with company policy.

Some tourists stuck at the airport said they had alternate flights, but they were facing long delays.

"There are hundreds of people that can't get out, and it's a little upsetting," said Darius Schwartz, a New York native who now lives in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem. "I'm a loyal El Al customer and I'll continue to fly El Al, but there's no reason to go on strike just because of ratifying a treaty that would equalize competition," Schwartz said.

Travelers with Israir on domestic flights to Eilat, Israel's Red Sea resort, were provided with buses. The flight lasts half an hour, but the bus trip takes about four hours.

The Open Skies agreement is meant to reduce restrictions on European carriers for using Israeli airspace, increasing competition. It would expand the number of flights between Israel and Europe and allow Israel to become a layover hub. Now it is a final stop.

Hundreds of union members demonstrated outside the Cabinet meeting, despite unseasonably rainy weather. Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said officers arrested eight protesters for "causing a public disturbance."

Arieh Katz, a longtime El Al worker, said at the rally, "They are finishing off the company. The pain is immense. Irresponsible people are running this government, and we will pay the price in the end."


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