El Al Israel Airlines (LY, Tel Aviv Ben Gurion) started laying off employees on March 1 as it suffered further revenue losses due to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak. Reports had already emerged on February 27 that the carrier planned to dismiss 1,000 of its 6,300 employees, citing a letter by president and CEO Gonen Usishkin to a senior executive.

“It must be emphasised that the goal is to implement this immediately,” Usishkin wrote in the letter directed at Yehudit Grisaro, vice president of human resources, urging her to prepare a specific plan in the coming days.

The redundancies will hit employees from all levels of the company but especially crew members, according to the newspaper Calcalist. Some employees reported being sent on vacation without pay, while the hiring of new pilots and other new employees has been frozen. The plan may also include salary reductions.

Around 100 trainees on El Al’s cabin crew training programme were forced to turn in their company ID cards on March 1 and were told that the training courses had been halted, according to the Times of Israel. The airline also axed 60 pilots who were due to begin flying for the company and were already in training.

“As the company copes with the consequences of the coronavirus crisis, as part of the process of adapting the company workforce a message was issued to El Al pilot trainees, stewards and ground crews that El Al has halted their certification process, and they would not be hired as company employees at this time,” El Al said in a statement.

“Additionally, the company is making adjustments, including the halting of courses for stewards and ground crews that were supposed to start soon. It should be noted that there will not be new hires to the company until further notice,” it added.

Allowing information to be released about the planned firings may have been a negotiation tactic for talks with labour representatives, the Times of Israel speculated, explaining that the plan may not entail 1,000 job losses as the company only has around 3,600 permanent workers in its 6,300 workforce.

El Al’s labour union, also known as the workers’ committee, convened an emergency meeting involving hundreds of employees on March 1, the financial newspaper Globes reported. The union had been surprised by the scale of the layoff plan and demanded government assistance for the airline.

On the same day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed support for El Al, telling the head of the committee, Sharon Ben Itzhak, that he had instructed a ministerial committee to assist El Al and other Israeli airlines.

In an update, El Al has now said that it has furloughed 80% of its 6,300-strong staff while hundreds are currently quarantined. According to Globes, El Al's pilots have offered to take a 20% pay cut to help the airline survive the crisis. 90% of flightcrew have already been placed on unpaid leave. Of El Al's 650 pilots, about 600 are active fliers while the rest work in training and other jobs.

El Al said in a stock exchange disclosure last week that it is awaiting a Ministry of Finance decision on whether to extend state aide to the stricken carrier.

Editorial Comment: Updated with new staff furlough figures. - 15.03.2020 - 13:08 UTC