Dr. Aviva Alpern works unbelievably hard. A single immigrant from the US, she made aliya and was accepted to study medicine at Tel Aviv University. Hard work, long hours and a profession that, while still respected, is poorly compensated.
She graduated as an M.D. and was fortunate during her studies to meet a fellow medical student and marry. After seven long years, the couple finished their internships and were finally able to start their honeymoon. Long fascinated with the Orient, Aviva chose to spend two months hiking and trekking through India.
Still young enough to be eligible for a youth discount, she purchased two tickets on El Al to Bombay then onto Delhi on Indian Airlines, each time giving a long layover to make the connecting flights.
Two months flew by and last month they reluctantly started their journey home. If they had known what they were about to encounter, they may have chosen to extend their vacation.
In Aviva's words: "It began when the flight from Delhi to Bombay was delayed almost 30 minutes.
"We arrived in Bombay and a shuttle was waiting for us to take us to the international terminal. We arrived at the international terminal at 10 p.m., over an hour before our El Al flight back to Tel Aviv.
"We were part of a group of almost 50 people who had been on the same flight. Some of us had already started to check in and the El Al manager in Bombay informed us that there would not be enough time to check our bags through so we must fly without our luggage.
Some of us were angry about the prospect of leaving our luggage in Bombay. It is still India. She never asked us what we prefer: to be on the flight without our luggage or not to be on the flight at all.
"The next thing we know is this: Bina announces that the flight is closed and then all of the staff leaves! They deserted all 50 of us in the checkout counter. In all my history of flying I have never experienced such disgusting behavior towards a client.
"About two hours (we were still all standing there bewildered) later, an El Al representative came and informed us of our options.
"They told us that we could either buy another ticket on another flight to get back to Israel. They said they are not paying for the flight. El Al refused to sign our tickets over to another airline! We were in total shock! The other option was to try and get us on the next El Al flight, which was three days later.
"We knew that the flight was overbooked and the El Al manager said that she could not confirm that we would be on that flight and could only fly standby! In addition to that, we were to arrange our own hotel accommodations in Bombay. In other words El Al just told us that we are on our own, it was our fault that we were late for the flight and we must take care of ourselves.
"Because the chances of the Thursday flight seemed unlikely, most of us bought one-way tickets through Turkish Airlines. I immediately called my travel agency, and in five minutes they issued us e-tickets totaling over $1,000 for the two of us. I am demanding compensation for the new flight that we were forced to purchase. We must be compensated."
I do so love the youth of this country. Their unbridled optimism that once a company has been shown the errors of their ways, restitution will occur. Still El Al's response, to its credit, was clear and concise:
"Dear Dr. Alpert,
"On behalf of El Al, I am so very sorry that you missed our flight due to the bad weather in Bombay which caused delays to all flights coming into Bombay. Based on my investigation, our station manager in Bombay tried to have the flight postponed but could not.
"Her staff assisted passengers by taking them to the offices of other airlines, letting them purchase NEW tickets. Please note that in the process of operating scheduled service over many different routes each day, occasionally there is a "force majeure" due to weather which was not El Al's fault. I suggest you have your Travel Consultant send your new tickets to our accounting department to see if there is anything refundable in this instance."
"Force Majeure" is a term bandied around by airlines. The best definition is: an act of God - a natural and unavoidable catastrophe that interrupts the expected course of events. But an airline applies it from a legal angle.
It is a common clause in contracts which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation to fulfill their obligations under a contract. However, force majeure is not intended to excuse negligence or other malfeasance of a party, as where non-performance is caused by the usual and natural consequences of external forces.
So while El Al was technically following the letter of the law in the spirit of maintaining and fostering repeat business, the manager should have endorsed their tickets over to Turkish Airlines.
This simple gesture of kindness and smart service is practiced daily by hundreds of airlines when flights are delayed by weather. Simply called "Involuntary rerouting," the airlines placate an irate client while encouraging future customer loyalty.
Let's hope that El Al comes to its senses or Dr. Alpert will be "operating" on different airlines in the future. I urge all clients to practice what I preach - give yourself plenty of time to make connections. It is better to face a long wait for a connection than to be stuck without any flight at all.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.
For questions and comments email him at [email protected]