ALPA Volunteers Pressure Airlines to Evacuate Crews During Attack on Israel

By Gavin Francis, Senior Aviation Writer
Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel.

On April 13, Iran launched a major aerial attack on Israel that was fully expected by the world, the first direct strike by Iran on Israeli territory from Iranian soil. That attack, which included approximately 120 ballistic missiles, 170 drones, and more than 30 cruise missiles, was in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike that killed an Iranian military commander in Damascus, Syria, on April 1.

Tensions in the region have been extremely high ever since a cross-border attack into Israel by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, 2023, which prompted a response by Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Since then, other groups have contributed to the instability in the region, resulting in a pause in flights to Israel by U.S. and Canadian airlines. Some flights had been restarted in March and early April before the April 13 attack. The threat of a strike against Israel by Iran was the subject of discussion by intelligence analysts on all major news outlets. Despite the known risk, airlines chose to operate flights during this time.

During that attack, air raid sirens sounded in more than 720 locations, and explosions were heard in cities across Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For Air Canada and United crews laying over in Tel Aviv, it was an extremely challenging and dangerous situation. As news of the impending attack circulated in the hours before the first drones and missiles reached Israel, the U.S. State Department issued travel advisories for the region, citing the potential for terrorism and civil unrest.

“Both the Air Canada and the United once-daily flights from Toronto, Ont., and Newark, N.J., into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport leave North America in the late afternoon within half an hour of each other,” said F/O Michael Moeller (Air Canada), vice chair of his Master Executive Council’s (MEC) Security Committee. Because of the impending attack, both airlines made the decision to cancel those flights. Israel also shut down its airspace. “That meant that crews laying over in Tel Aviv were stuck there with no way to get them out,” Moeller noted.

Meanwhile, ALPA security volunteers working within the Association’s Air Safety Organization (ASO) security structure were coordinating behind the scenes to pressure the airlines to do their job and bring the crews to safety. They were discussing with the airlines, which have the ultimate responsibility of ensuring the safety and security of these crews, the different options for land extractions, trying to get crews on buses and across the border either into Jordan or going south. But the consensus, based on information from embassy staff and security personnel, was that the best place to be at that point was in a hotel that had robust bomb shelter availability.

With that information in hand, the airlines and ALPA provided the advice from the embassy to the crews to stay in the hotel and be ready to go to the nearby shelter if they heard air raid sirens. In the meantime, they continued to stay in communication with the crews, providing updates and information on contingency plans that the airlines were developing; regrettably, this wouldn’t have been necessary if the Tel Aviv flights had been canceled.

“Mike and I were in continuous communication during that time, talking with the crews and our respective MEC leaders,” said Capt. Steven Curry (United), his pilot group’s MEC Security Committee chair. “All of us were sharing the intelligence analysis we received from the embassies and other sources to make sure that we were all getting basically the same guidance. Staying at the hotel made a lot of sense to us, United Airlines and ALPA, because the hotel was just three blocks from the Tel Aviv Branch Office of the U.S. Embassy. We knew we had good support there, and I had already assessed the property with the airline in March, so there were no concerns about the safety of the hotel. Mike and I never stopped talking or sharing information during that time. Everyone involved just had a universal concern for our crews. We also kept our MEC chairs who helped with the coordination of efforts with our respective airlines apprised of the situation.”

Once the attack subsided and the airspace opened again, United repurposed an aircraft that was positioned in Munich, Germany. “Unfortunately, with all the airspace closures, it not only affected Tel Aviv, but also Amman, Jordan, for United,” Curry observed. “We were in direct communication with the airlines that had arranged to fly the crews on Royal Jordanian to Rome. The bigger challenge was procuring the aircraft out of Munich for our Air Canada and United crews in Israel. United canceled a flight from Munich to Chicago and reallocated that aircraft for the extraction flight to Tel Aviv.”

Navigating these kinds of challenges isn’t new to Curry and Moeller. They and other volunteers within ALPA’s security structure had previously worked with the airlines to ensure they were getting crews out of Tel Aviv after the October 7 attack.

“It’s been a high-threat location for a while, and we’ve had countless incidents,” said Curry. “The relationships we’ve developed with the airlines and others, along with our work in Tel Aviv, goes back years.”

“Prior to going back into Tel Aviv after the October 7 attack, we had our Air Canada MEC Security chair go with our corporate Security and Safety Departments as well as some of our other union reps from occupational health and safety to do a comprehensive look,” Moeller remarked. “We met with people within the IDF as well as with security individuals at the airport, hotels, with transportation companies, and with the Canadian Embassy. We shared all of that with our counterparts at ALPA and the United MEC, and with other pilot groups flying into the region.”

In her May report to the Executive Board, Capt. Wendy Morse, ALPA’s first vice president and national safety coordinator, acknowledged the important work that ALPA volunteers did to pressure the airlines to do their job and extract the Air Canada and United crews. “This evacuation was made possible largely due to the hard work and coordinated response of many pilots across ALPA working together with their Central Air Safety Committee and Security Committee structures and airlines, all pulling together to bring our members home. Their assistance was absolutely crucial in protecting fellow crewmembers who suddenly found themselves in harm’s way—a dangerous situation that should have been avoided by proper airline prospective cancellations.”

“The cooperation between pilot groups at the Security Council, as well as at the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Association security group, is what truly made the coordination of this evacuation successful by getting their airline managements to bring home our crewmembers,” said Capt. Wolfgang Koch (Delta), ALPA’s ASO Aviation Security Group chair. “It was a joint effort from the pilots’ Security Committee chairs and coordinators of the affected pilot groups to get airline managements to ensure they provided their duty of care for these crews, albeit after putting them in harm’s way to begin with.”

Overall, the uncertainty caused by military activities has impacted flight service in and out of Israel. Passengers and airlines alike are navigating these challenges as they adapt to the changing security landscape in the region.

“A return to Tel Aviv by Air Canada is still in the planning stages,” Moeller observed. “The MEC has been talking with the company as well as with pilot groups at other carriers to get an idea of their planning. We all want stability in the operation. We don’t want to go in and then have to pull back out again. It’s in everybody’s best interest to make sure that we’re security- and safety-minded when we return to service and that we have proactive plans in place to ensure we don’t put our crews once again in this position.”

Curry noted that United had repositioned crews in Tel Aviv on June 6 with the first return flight occurring on June 7. “Two weeks later, on June 20, United was scheduled to initiate a second nonstop flight out of Newark to Tel Aviv, resulting in two Tel Aviv flights a day.”

Although Air Canada pilots only recently joined ALPA in May 2023, Moeller noted that his pilot group definitely sees the advantages of being part of a larger union, and those advantages were evident in the networks and resources that were available to them through ALPA during this recent crisis.

“It’s a testament to our MECs that we’re all able to get our airline managements to take the responsibility to get our pilots out,” remarked Moeller. “The members don’t always get to know about a lot of the stuff that we do. There are things that can’t be discussed outside of our security circle. But just like safety, security is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a week job.”

This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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