The call came right after the holiday ended. A day of celebration and feasting
with family and friends brutally stopped short in its tracks. Rachel’s family,
holding back tears, informed her that her father had suffered a massive cerebral
hemorrhage and was dying. With her dad based in Cleveland, she knew that finding
any airline seat from Israel at the height of the Jewish holidays would be both
costly and challenging.
Rather than call a travel agent, her friend got
on the Internet to see what flights were available to get to Cleveland as
quickly as possible.
Rather than try airlines at Ben-Gurion Airport, who,
to be equitable, most likely wouldn’t answer the phones, her friend started
ringing airlines in the US, where it was the middle of the
Electing to fly via Europe, she made reservations for Rachel on
Air France, KLM and Delta for the princely sum of almost $2,500. Rachel,
informed of the plans by her friend, agreed and made her way to the airport,
telling her friend that she would pay for it herself at the airport. This was
not a good idea. Her horrific night was about to get even worse.
arrived at the airport, the booking office was closed and a quick inquiry told
her it would open in one hour. While the hands on the clock slowly advanced, she
received another phone call that her father had succumbed and as tears began to
roll down Rachel’s face, the agent finally took her place behind the airline
She quickly found the reservation but there was one gaping piece
of information missing from her booking – a price. Typing furiously, the agent
announced that the fare had found and that her economy class ticket could now be
purchased for $3,600.
Yes in, the time between the reservation and her
arrival at the airport, the price had risen by $1,100. Anxiously pleading with
the agent that she had been quoted a far lower fare and that her father was now
dead fell on deaf ears. Begging for an ounce of sympathy, she asked if there was
anything else available, but with no access to other airline information she was
tersely informed this was the best that could be obtained.
I’d bet my
bottom dollar that their conversation went something like this: “Do you know
when you want to return,” asked the sleep deprived airport representative “No
idea,” cried our Rachel, “Just get me on the plane!” Feebly asking if there was
a bereavement fare, a firm shake of the head from the clerk is coupled with
another firm denial. Rachel was cogent enough to ask for a supervisor but was
told none could be reached at this ungodly hour. There was a simple way to lower
the fare by hundreds of dollars: choose a return date. One should never, ever
purchase a round trip, open date return ticket. Even if you have no idea when
you’ll be returning, it is advisable to pick a return date, confirm what the
change fee will be if you have to change it and then close the deal. Why this
shortsighted clerk felt no compunction to offer Rachel such a ticket escapes
No doubt incapable of thinking outside the box, she showed
no inclination to be creative.
Emotionally spent, Rachel handed over her
credit card to purchase the ticket only to be told that her card was over the
Fortunately the friend who had initiated the entire process (and
whom could have purchased the ticket for the original price) was able to
complete the purchase on her own credit card.
I HAVE little doubt that a
serious error was made by the airline and the fault lies with the original
booking agent. Whenever one makes a reservation, one should first and foremost
ask for the name of the booking agent. Just as flights cannot be reserved
without making a booking, failure to ask the name of the agent can have serious
Rachel spent several days after the funeral being shunted
around from person to person as she tried to find someone in the US who would
take responsibility for quoting the original price. In desperation she turned to
this columnist, who instructed her to write her tale of woe to KLM in
Realistically speaking, without proof of whom her friend had
dealt with, her chances of getting any reasonable refund is slim.
similar story happened to Shelley, who, while visiting her father in New York,
received the grim news that he would not live much longer. Her dad had arranged
to be buried in Israel and Shelley contacted her travel agent to plan her
journey back with her father’s body.
She and her children were visiting
the US, having flow in on El Al knowing in that her father’s illness was
Although the burial society would make all the arrangements
for her father, she was told that flights back to Israeljust after a holiday
were quite full but that El Al would get her on a flight.
Her father died
on a Shabbat morning and Shelley jumped into action. His body was going to be on
the 7:00 p.m. flight from JFK on Sunday and she and her children needed seats on
that plane. Coupled with the fact that her sister and her family, who lived in
the US, were going to accompany the body to Israel, El Al was put to the
Did it go smoothly? Of course not. El Al’s policy is that they
will put immediate family (Shelley and her sister) on the plane, even if they
have to bump another passenger.
Through the travel agent, the airline
kept reassuring Shelley, but it was a very tall order to get seats for her
children as well.
Shelley and her family headed to the
They checked their bags and were told to be patient. Calls went
back and forth until an hour before takeoff, space was found for
Did El Al waive the change fees? No. Did El Al offer reduced
rates? Yes and no. They did offer a 10-percent bereavement discount on the new
tickets that needed to be purchased, but they elected to charge exorbitant
amounts to change the three tickets that Shelley had in her
There were no Israeli El Al employees at JFK airport. The
counters were manned by personnel who, while sensitive to her needs, had little
leeway in waiving change fees or lowering the large reissue fees that she was
forced to pay. Like Rachel, Shelley will contact El Al and request a complete
explanation of what she was charged. As for anyone dealing with a death in the
family, clear-headed thinking is a rare commodity, but she may be eligible for
some type of refund.
While I don’t have empirical evidence, in my
experience the holidays seem to elicit a higher death rate among the Jewish
One can never prepare for a death; too often it comes suddenly
and without advance notice. Living in Israel with relatives around the world
adds an extra challenge, but there are some basic principles that one can
follow: Always make sure your passports are up-to-date.
attempt to work with a travel agent who has the ability to check all the airline
options, as opposed to booking through one specific airline.
whomever you work with has a 24-hour help line.
Never purchase an
open-ended return ticket.
Most importantly, always get the names of the
people with whom you have spoken.
Dealing with the loss of a loved one is
one of the most stressful times in a person’s life, but following this advice
should-make the travel plans go as smoothly as possible.Mark Feldman is
the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. firstname.lastname@example.org