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The Travel Adviser: Air Canada throws down the gauntlet
By MARK FELDMAN
21/12/2013
Founded in 1936, Air Canada flies to over 178 destinations throughout the world; it is a founding member of the Star Alliance.
 
"O Canada” is the national anthem of Canada.

Penned back in 1906, it only became the de facto anthem in 1980 through an act of parliament.

Like so many national anthems, it sings loud and proud of its country’s virtues: “From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free! O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

Incidentally, Air Canada is the country’s largest airline.

Founded in 1936, it flies to over 178 destinations throughout the world; it is a founding member of the Star Alliance, formed in 1997, which to date has 28 member airlines. Oops, that number will drop to 27 members when US Airways officially departs the to join the One World Alliance, where American Airlines and British Airways rule the roost.

While corporate headquarters are in Montreal, its largest hub is Toronto Pearson International Airport.

Air Canada has successfully beaten most airline challengers to her home country; in the dust bin is Canadian Pacific, which tried hard to win market share but to no avail. Back in 2001, Air Canada gobbled up Canadian Airlines. West Jet is now the thorn in its side, utilizing a lower cost structure to win and maintain customers.

Ruth Ben-Zur is the general manager of Air Canada in Israel. Small in stature, she stands tall among her colleagues as the longest-serving female executive in the aviation industry in the Jewish state. When she began her job, she wisely decided to market Air Canada not as a way to fly to Toronto, but to use the city simply as a hub, continuing from there to all over North America.

Travel professionals were skeptical of her concept, but found that clients liked the idea of avoiding New York City airports and making transfers in Toronto Airport.

Well before the hub and spoke system of airlines became so fashionable, she grabbed market share from El Al by changing the way clients and travel consultants view the airline.

Later in her career, Ben-Zur convinced her bosses to cease any cooperation with El Al. Until that time, El Al could use Air Canada to fly its passengers beyond Toronto to dozens of cities in Canada. Stymied by this rebuttal, El Al lost its market share and ultimately pulled out of nonstop flights to Montreal Ben-Zur’s diminutive size is no match for her strong business acumen, believing that the Israel-Canada market is something to be marketed and promoted strongly.

Only last year, she embarrassed El Al when the President Shimon Peres elected to fly Air Canada on his state visit to Canada. After Peres’s requests were rebuffed by El Al, Air Canada stepped in and Ben-Zur made sure that ample publicity broadcasted the fact that an Israeli president had chosen to fly a Canadian airline.

Furthermore, Ben-Zur brought in a Boeing 767 on the Tel Aviv-Toronto route, gaining instant recognition with one of the first lie-flat beds in business class.

The biggest coup of her career must surely be her recent announcement that the first airline to fly in and out of Tel Aviv on the jewel of the Boeing crown will be Air Canada. The Boeing 787, known as the Dreamliner, will commence services from Toronto to Tel Aviv on July 1.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a long-range, midsize, wide-body, twin-engine jet airliner. Air Canada is planning to have 241 seats, with three classes – business, premium economy and economy class. Boeing states that it has been designed to be 20-percent more fuel efficient than the 767.

Passengers especially love the interior of the plane.

The 787’s cabin windows are larger in area than any other civil airplane in service or in development. It has a higher eye level, so passengers can maintain a view of the horizon. Instead of shades, the windows employ electrochromism, or smart glass, allowing flight attendants and passengers to adjust to five different levels of sunlight and visibility.

Moreover, the fact that Boeing primarily used composite materials in the construction of its airline has led to higher cabin humidity levels and improved air quality.

The result is a substantial reduction in jetlag; seems that improved cabin pressure and oxygen really do reduce the alterations to your body’s circadian rhythms.

Come next summer, we will have two airlines flying nonstop to Toronto. Air Canada from Tel Aviv will have daily flights departing here at 1:55 p.m., landing in Toronto at 6:55 p.m. Great if you live in Toronto or on the East Coast, but the airline’s successful strategy of focusing on Toronto as a hub means passengers flying out West will find it far harder to make a same-day connection. Worse, if the flight lands late in Toronto, they will be forced at Air Canada’s largesse to spend the night in an airport hotel.

The departure times for flights leaving Toronto are scheduled at 6:25 p.m., arriving in Tel Aviv the following afternoon at 12 p.m. Not ideal for the working man or woman who will not have a full business day before needing to head to the airport, but a nice schedule for leisure travelers, who will be able to feed their kids and pray for several hours of sleep.

Seats in each class will feature a built-in touchscreen for in-flight entertainment, with a USB outlet for charging personal electronics and a universal power outlet. Passengers upgrading to premium economy get a bit more space, with 38 inches of legroom and seats with a 19.5-inch width that recline 7 inches. Business class adds even larger in-flight touchscreens, and pods which transform into lie-flat beds.

Members of the Star Alliance can interline on the North American routes with United, Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian and Brussels airlines, offering almost endless combinations for the discerning consumer.

In contrast, El Al will be flying four times a week from Tel Aviv to Toronto, departing twice a week at the more desirable time of 12:50 a.m. and twice more with a similar daytime flight, like Air Canada at 11:30 a.m.

Operating a Boeing 767-300 aircraft, El Al offers business class, economy plus and economy classes. There are no personal entertainment systems on these planes, and no power points can be found to plug in your devices.

In business class, while you cannot lie flat, you are given a personal DVD player with a wide selection of entertainment. Economy plus passengers get a whopping 5 inches more space in between seats.

Fortunately, elite members (gold and platinum) of El Al’s frequent flier club get these seats for free. In economy class, screens are set up along the walls for programming.

El Al has no affiliation with any of the three large airline alliances, thus a passenger cannot interline with any other airline. WestJet, the pesky Air Canada competitor, has agreed to be El Al’s partner when a passenger needs to travel beyond Toronto.

Keep in mind that the fares are identical, though each has specials throughout the year which offer brief pricing advantages over the other. A cursory review thus shows Air Canada widening the chasm between what it offers versus El Al.

So what can El Al do? When I requested a response from El Al management, I was told that everything is under review. When reminded that Air Canada has been loudly trumpeting it new plane, and that people were already making reservations, a quick “Don’t worry” was the condescending rejoinder.

Let me make some suggestions. We are talking summertime, when the vast majority of passengers are leisure clients with children and grandchildren. Since a sizable part of most trips to North America include shopping, perhaps El Al could waive the second suitcase fee among summer travelers? The battle for passenger loyalty must also be addressed, and with Air Canada’s inherent advantage in its partner alliances, El Al’s frequent fliers are being tested. Perhaps El Al could offer extra miles for their frequent fliers who elect to fly to Toronto next month? Or maybe El Al management, which actually gets compensated to plan for these types of events, could come up with an intelligent strategy? O Canada, you’ve thrown down the gauntlet; is there anyone at El Al able to pick it up??

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