The Travel Adviser: Have a little faith

By
May 25, 2013 23:31
Independence Day Ceremony

Independence Day 2013 390 1. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

It was right after Independence Day, which took place in mid-April this year, when Yael decided she wanted to get away. She loved being in the country but relished the chance to pop over to Europe for a long weekend.

She knew that the end of May would be the best time to find a bargain, before passengers and airlines begin to stick their toes into the summer travel season.

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Like many a seasoned traveler, she looked at a few sites, perused a few ads and decided to travel to Berlin. Knowing it was one of the least expensive cities in Europe and hearing from friends what it had to offer, she contacted her trusty travel consultant.

Emunah saw that both Lufthansa and El Al wanted close to $700 for the particular weekend Yael wanted to travel, but found a far more palatable solution on Sun d’Or Airlines for $569, with every tax known to womankind included. A charter airline with draconian cancellation fees, Yael elected to take the risk and purchase travel insurance, and her ticket for the end of May was issued.

Most of you have never heard of Sun d’Or – so let me educate you, please: Sun d’Or was created back in October 1977 as El Al Charter Services Ltd., a subsidiary of El Al, at a time when the airline was fully owned by the state. The airline changed its name in 1981 to Sun d’Or, choosing to add “International Airlines” to its name to create Sun d’Or International Airlines.

Her creation was for two specific purposes: 1. To operate on Shabbat; and 2. To compete in the burgeoning charter marketplace. Since April 2001, Sun d’Or had grown to become a significant player in the Israeli charter market. The airline also operated flights for incoming tourists, on behalf of European and Israeli operators. In January 2005, Sun d’Or became a private company following the privatization of El Al, operating two leased aircrafts from her mother company, El Al.

Sun d’Or International Airlines remained a fully owned subsidiary company of El Al and as such, its passengers could take advantage of this association. Benefits included the ability for passengers to accumulate El Al frequent flyer points on Sun d’Or flights. El Al also provided ground services, air crews and aircraft for Sun d’Or.

In March 2011, the Civil Aviation Authority announced the suspension of Sun d’Or’s operating license effective April 1, 2011. The CAA, in its decision, cited non-compliance with Israeli and international airline management standards – mainly lack of self-owned planes and crew. In other words, a pot by any other name was still a pot.

No problem: A Chinese wall was created, and now Sun d’Or’s flights are not only operated by El Al, but also by Arkia and Israir, the two other Israeli airlines.

Yael’s reservation to Berlin, perchance, was operated by El Al, so when Emunah at the travel agency received the startling email from Sun d’Or one week prior to the flight’s departure date, she was perplexed: Hi Emunah, Please note that the Flights EL AL #5491 from Tel Aviv to Berlin, and El AL #5492 from Berlin to Tel Aviv, are canceled.

Please note we don’t have alternatives for these flights.

Please note I will just issue a full refund for the ticket to your passenger.

Please advise your passenger.

Best regards, ... Okay, I’m not that cruel and won’t put in the name of the moron at Sun d’Or who sent this email.

Emunah called the airline employee immediately and was told that while he was most sorry, they were canceling the flight and he would graciously refund the entire ticket! Emunah asked the obvious question: Why not put her on the El AL flight that same day at the almost identical time? Sorry, she was told, we can’t do that. We are only authorized to refund the amount in full, was his meek retort. Fuming, she asked to speak to his supervisor, who parroted the party line and declined to endorse the ticket over to El Al, claiming it would cost them too much money.

Emunah is a calm woman, a woman of faith, who truly believes that people are not out to hurt her. At this stage she contacted me and I asked the following simple questions: Was the ticket purchased? Had 14 days passed since that purchase when the email was received? A quick affirmative to both queries meant that Sun d’Or was legally responsible, according to the Israeli Consumer Protection Law (known as Tibi’s law), to offer one of two things to the passenger: 1. Refund the cost in full to the passenger without any additional compensation, as the flight was canceled more than 7 days before the actual departure date; or 2. Offer comparable flights to the same destination.

Yes, the law stated that Sun d’Or had to ASK the passenger what she wanted – a strange concept in the field of customer service according to Sun d’Or.

Emunah and Yael quickly checked out alternatives and found the fares had risen to over $750, so they politely asked that Sun d’Or put her on the El Al ticket.

No, said their legal representative, we don’t interpret the law that way.

Finally deciding I couldn’t believe the blarney that was being uttered, I spoke to their legal representative myself.

“Sorry,” I was told, “that’s not how we understand the law. All we need do is refund the money.”

I pointed out to her that El Al still owned Sun d’Or, and that it should be a very simple act to endorse it over.

Moreover, I discovered that the return flight was still being operated, so Sun d’Or would still gain revenue from 50 percent of her ticket.

As if talking to a wall, she remained stiff-lipped and steadfast in her interpretation.

Having several tools in my bag, I contacted David Sprecher, the lawyer who worked with the Knesset on writing the legislation. I asked him if perhaps my interpretation was wrong. Quite the contrary, he stated, and was kind enough to send me the relevant paragraph – which I forwarded to the travel consultant, so she could negotiate with Sun d’Or from a stronger vantage point.

Like getting water from a stone, the legal representative at Sun d’Or replied that Mr. Sprecher was wrong and refused to endorse the ticket. Now that his reputation was being impugned, I meekly asked Mr. Sprecher if he could drop her an email, and he readily agreed.

Not 30 seconds later, Sun d’Or called Emunah at the travel agency and said they would make an exception for her client, and endorsed the ticket over to El Al.

Yael never knew what Emunah had done to make it happen; she had complete confidence that it would be solved.

There was a larger issue though: Sun d’Or had sold over 100 seats on the plane, with the vast majority purchased online. While Sprecher sent the Sun d’Or representative an email thanking her for capitulating so quickly, he chided her for not offering the same terms to the other passengers, who were not as fortunate as Yael.

Thus, every other passenger who purchased the ticket was “relieved” to get their money back in full. They were a bit upset that they had to spend a few hundred dollars more – but none of them realized they had been royally ripped off by the airline.

As we move into the summer season, keep in mind the rules and regulations, realizing that many airline representatives and travel consultants are not well-versed in the law.

As I always say, an informed passenger is a savvy shopper, the one who always find the best flights. Here are a few helpful things to know, the four major drivers of airfare prices: 1. Competition: Lack of competition generally means high airfares, and Open Skies or not, travelers are exposed to this when flying to less popular destinations; 2. Fuel prices: Higher fuel prices generally mean more expensive airline tickets, but while oil prices are not cheap, they have been relatively stable over the past several weeks; 3. Capacity: Airlines have been cutting, not adding seats over the past few years; 4. Demand: Right now, demand is excellent and so far, airfare hikes have pushed fares up 6% from last summer.

Finally there are three sure-fire ways to save money on summer vacation flights:

1. Fly early in the season, before July 1;

2. Fly late in the season, around the last week in August;

3. Fly on the less popular days to travel – Tuesday and Wednesday. Even if you can’t do this both in directions, doing it one direction will yield savings.

So make your plans, book your flights, and make sure you have a little faith.

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions & comments, email him at [email protected]


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