JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's three airlines went on strike Sunday over a proposed "Open Skies" deal with the European Union that workers say jeopardizes their jobs and could even cause the local airline industry to collapse.
El Al, Arkia and Israir stopped their outbound flights from Israel early Sunday morning. The strike does not affect flights by international carriers.
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 of from New York, who 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 would reduce restrictions on European carriers for using Israeli airspace, increasing competition. It would expand the number of flights between Israel and European countries and allow Israel to become a layover hub. Now it is a final stop.
The Israeli Cabinet was set to vote on the deal later in the day. Hundreds of union workers protested 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."
Transport Minister Yisrael Katz told reporters that he expected the proposal to be approved. He said the deal would benefit the economy by increasing tourism and reducing ticket prices.
"We will not give in to pressure. The agreement will pass by a large majority despite attempts to block it," Katz said. He said the deal will enable Israelis to fly to more destinations for cheaper and boost tourism to Israel. That in turn would generate thousands of new jobs, he said.
Critics say that Israel's small fleet along with its high security costs would hinder it from competing with larger international airlines.
Ofer Eini, head of the powerful Histadrut labor union, told Israel Radio that he favors open skies, but the deal needs to be amended to secure local jobs. He said the deal could cause local airlines to collapse and warned that thousands of jobs are at risk.
He said the debate should be postponed by a month to improve the proposal's terms and make sure jobs are safe. He indicated that the strike could be broadened if the deal is approved Sunday.