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Travel Advisor: Really too close for comfort
By MARK FELDMAN
04/21/2012
Joshua was apoplectic. Tanya was nonplussed. They simply wanted to understand the logic.
 
Joshua was apoplectic. Tanya was nonplussed. They simply wanted to understand the logic. If her Turkish Airlines flight was to depart JFK two hours later than scheduled, how could the Turkish Airlines personnel at JFK keep reassuring Tanya she’d make her Friday afternoon flight to Tel Aviv when her original connecting time had two hours? Some background is necessary for you to understand the players.

Joshua and his family live in Israel, having made aliya some time ago from the US. His daughter Tanya was studying abroad. Her fervent desire and his simple request was that she comes back to Israel for Passover during her spring break.

This was not a last-minute purchase. Joshua starting checking out flights for Passover last December.

Sadly, all the nonstop airlines, be it El Al or United Airlines or Delta cost several hundred dollars more. More traditional airlines, like British Airways via London or Alitalia via Rome, were also a few hundred more. Turkish Airlines though, was reasonably priced. There had been some embarrassing encounters between Turkish security personnel and Israeli passport holders, but these had thankfully faded into the past.

Israelis were flying Turkish Airlines in record numbers.

Turkish Airlines is now part of the Star Alliance, with a sterling reputation for both safety and service and at $1,279 it was a great fare to come here right before Passover.

The only snag was the dates... Tanya could depart only on Thursday afternoon from JFK with a three-and-a-half hour layover in Istanbul. She was never thrilled about Friday afternoon arrivals in Tel Aviv so close to candle lighting time, but it was decided that it was worth the risk.

In addition, she had flown Turkish Airlines just six months earlier when she came in for Rosh Hashana. It was a bit distressing when in mid-February Turkish Airlines advised her that the flight time from JFK had been pushed back from 4:45 p.m. to 6:25 p.m. No matter, she thought, for if it landed at 11:15 a.m. on Friday, she’d still have plenty of time to make the 12:40 p.m. connecting flight.

In fact, there were close to 50 passengers coming to Israel from New York on that connecting flight; surely it would all work out if they arrived late in Istanbul. Misery does love company...

Veteran readers of this column are well aware that when I raise an issue it’s because there’s a lesson to be learned. So when Joshua emailed his travel consultant at 3:30 in the morning and then followed up with a phone call three hours later, it was clear to all that something was seriously amiss.

Upon checking in at JFK, Turkish Airlines informed the passengers that the plane would depart two hours later than scheduled. Tanya’s nonplussed expression must have alerted the ground staff that even she could do the basic math – there was no way she could make the connection. The Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Tel Aviv was operating a Boeing 737-800 equipped to seat up to 138 passengers. Thus, over a third of their passengers for this flight were not originating from Istanbul but connecting from a flight from the US; in fact I’d hazard a guess that 90% of the passengers on the flight were from connections via Istanbul.

There are many business travelers between Israel and Turkey, contrary to the pithy, pathetic and patronizing remarks made by the Turkish government. Turkish Airlines is an excellent conduit as a transit point between both North America and Europe and the Far East flying to and from Israel.

There are two types of ground personnel in the airline industry when it comes to airline delays. There’s the type that tries to solve the problem on the spot, exchanging a ticket to another airline, rebooking a passenger who will miss his or her connection on a more convenient flight. Then there’s the clerk who prefers not to make a decision, not to be forthcoming and airily dismisses all concerns of a missed connection with a breezy comment: “Don’t worry, someone from the airline will meet you upon arrival.” It’s the second comment said with such aplomb that should rankle you.

In essence, what Turkish Airlines did was pass on their problem from JFK airport to Istanbul airport. Calm the passengers, check in their bags and get them on the plane. And it worked.

Tanya’s a bright student; she knew enough to ask if she could be transferred to the El Al or Delta flight from JFK, both departing around the same time. “Sorry,” the Turkish Air representative said, “we can’t do that unless we know you’re going to miss the connection.” She patiently explained to them that as an observant Jew she would not fly on the Sabbath. They were quite sympathetic and told her that all would work out. In fact they did go so far as to contact the station manager whose quick retort was they would make the connecting flight.

Now what she did not consider was asking Turkish Airlines to put her on one of their Star Alliance partners.

Both Lufthansa and Swiss depart from JFK and would have taken her ticket from Turkish Airlines, which is also a fellow Star Alliance member. Off she went to board the plane. Her father, wise enough not to wait for the 10-hour flight to land, feverishly tried to find someone in Israel at Turkish Airlines on that Friday morning. Its offices in Tel Aviv were closed; its Ben-Gurion Airport phone rang incessantly off the hook but was not answered.

Unperturbed, Joshua contacted Turkish Airlines in Istanbul, where he discovered that while there were indeed close to 50 passengers scheduled for their 12:40 p.m. flight, their policy was to move everyone to the midnight flight that Friday evening. When asked why they simply didn’t hold that plane to accommodate these passengers, he was told that the plane had to depart Tel Aviv with a full load and that it wouldn’t be fair to have them delayed thus avoiding a chain reaction of delayed flights.

Now Tanya could be accused of many things, but breaking Shabbat by flying was not one of them. Upon arrival in Istanbul, she was herded to the transit desk and continually told that she had been rebooked on the Friday night flight. Keeping calm, it only took her another 30 minutes to find a supervisor who understood she would not get on the plane. Between texting her father and speaking to the passengers it slowly dawned on her that she was the only religious person on the entire plane and that the rest of the passengers had acquiesced to the Turkish Airlines news.

She was told then to go to another desk, this time beyond passport control, where she had to arrange a visa on her American passport. Passing by baggage claim she thought of locating her checked bags, only to be told they were not to be found.

Turkish Airlines ground staff in Istanbul, while trying to placate her, added one more caveat, perhaps trying to persuade her to fly on Shabbat with every other delayed passenger. Changing her ticket would incur a change fee.

Yes for only $600 she could stay in Istanbul, without hotel accommodation, without food and fly to Israel Saturday night.

Her father had already taken matters into his own hands; he had put out an ardent request asking for a Jewish family in Istanbul who could host his daughter for Shabbat. In a matter of minutes a wonderful family came forward.

Tanya’s travel consultant had long ago realized she’d miss the Friday morning flight, would not take the Friday evening flight and had booked her on the Saturday night flight without asking anyone’s permission.

Now emailing her travel consultant, she asked how the $600 fee could be waived. He calmly told her to have her ticket reissued prior to leaving the airport and if they insisted upon taking the $600 to pay it and she would receive complete reimbursement once she made it to Israel. Withdrawing money from an ATM, she made her way through the byzantine corridors of the airport until she found a Turkish Airlines supervisor who waived the change fee, reissued her ticket and wished her a good time in Istanbul for the next 36 hours.

She took a taxi to the family, was welcomed warmly into their homes, given clothes to wear and attended services. On Saturday night she made her way back to Israel and the bosom of her family. Of course her luggage remained in Istanbul another day... And when at Seder night, she read the magical line, “Next year in Jerusalem” a smile could be seen on her face.

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions and comments, email him at mark.feldman@ ziontours.co.il
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