Passengers on the nightmare El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv on Thursday night have accused the airline of lying and of a “kidnap” after a five-hour delay in taking off meant that the plane could not reach Israel before Shabbat began.
Despite El Al’s initial statement alleging that haredi fliers had been violent, numerous passengers stated subsequently that there had been no violence at all, with many blaming the late arrival of the cabin crew to the airport for the severe delay and failure to reach Israel on time.
Flight LY002 was scheduled to leave New York’s JFK Airport at 6:30 p.m. local time Thursday and arrive in Israel on Friday afternoon. But due to snow storms and the failure of the El Al cabin staff to arrive on time at the airport, the flight ended up leaving more than five hours later.
Shortly before the plane took off, religious passengers began to request stridently to disembark since they realized that the flight would continue into the Sabbath on Friday evening, a violation of Jewish religious law.El Al
claimed that “a group of haredim” requested to get off the plane and “exercised heavy and violent pressure against the cabin crew” in seeking to disembark, and alleged that this caused further delays in taking off.
But numerous passengers have denied these allegations, including a former member of Knesset and a journalist for Israel Hayom
, and accused the captain and the flight crew of essentially kidnapping the passengers who had wanted to get off the plane to avoid violating Shabbat.
According to these passengers, the flight captain announced that the plane was returning to the gate to allow anyone who wanted to disembark to do so, but then swiftly made its way to the runway and took off unannounced while passengers were still on their phones telling their family members they were staying in New York.
After being told soon after take off that the flight would make it to Israel on time, the captain announced some hours later that this would not be possible and that the plane was diverting to Athens where religious passengers could disembark and stay overnight for Shabbat, while onward flights to Israel were provided to passengers who wanted to get to Israel on Friday night.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post
, Yehudit Rossler from Monsey, New York, who was a passenger on the plane, insisted that although the atmosphere had been tense she did not see any violence from fellow passengers. She acknowledged, however, that many passengers did shout at the flight attendants. One passenger had shouted at members of the cabin crew that they were “liars and thieves,” she said.
Other passengers also became emotional, with one “shouting in their faces,” said Rossler, adding that she had told this particular passenger that this was not an appropriate way to talk to the cabin crew.
Video footage recorded by one passenger, Ben Chafetz, shows passengers raising their voices at the cabin crew and remonstrating vociferously with them, illustrating the heightened tensions onboard, but no footage has yet been seen showing any violent behavior.
Some non-religious passengers posted statements on social media after the flight criticizing the religious passengers for their behavior, with passenger Roni Meital stating on Facebook that someone had shoved one of the flight attendants and left her crying. It was unclear from her comment however whether or not she had personally witnessed the flight attendant being pushed.
Rossler said, however, that tensions were high because they had been lied to and because the pilots were not giving them any information.
“We were locked in a cage. There was nowhere to go, and no one to talk to. The people we trusted to take us safely to Israel were in their cabin not talking to us and leaving the flight attendants to talk to us,” she said. “They kidnapped us from New York. They told us we were going back to the gate, and took off instead.”
She added that other passengers had told her that some people banged on the door of the cockpit, demanding that the pilots explain what was happening, although she did not witness this herself.
Rossler also said that it was not just religious passengers who shouted at the flight attendants, but non-religious passengers as well who were upset that the flight was being diverted to Athens and not traveling straight to Tel Aviv.
She added that one of the flight attendants had told her that she and other members of the cabin crew had only departed from where they were staying in Manhattan at 3:30 p.m., just more than two hours before the scheduled boarding time, when forecasts of a major snow storm had been made days prior to the flight.
Chafetz, who wrote an account on the forum of the DansDeals website, insisted that there had been no violence by passengers.
“We were requesting to speak to the pilot or someone who can speak for the pilot. Again, there was no attempts to break into the cockpit, there were no physical altercations,” he continued, adding that he had been sitting in business class right next to area where passengers confronted the cabin crew, requesting to get off and he was able to hear every exchange.
Chafetz’s account corroborated that of Rossler’s and others who stated that the captain had said the plane was going to return to the gate, but headed to the runway and took off without telling the passengers.
Keren Levi, another passenger, wrote a lengthy account on Facebook and relayed the same details, noting that as the plane took off, there had been no warning on the intercom for passengers to fasten their seat belts, put their phones on flight mode, or even to sit down and for the cabin crew to ensure that everyone was seated.
Levi said that after take-off the religious passengers were assured that they would make it to Israel before Shabbat began, and that the crew stated that they had been given special permission to use a shorter flight path than usual because of the circumstances.
After several hours, however, a subsequent announcement was made that it would be impossible to reach Israel before the beginning of Shabbat, and that the flight was being diverted to Athens, where religious passengers could disembark and be flown on to Israel after Shabbat on Saturday night.
Alongside her account, Levi posted a picture of herself cutting up her recently received El Al Silver frequent flyers card.
Former MK Ya’akov Katz, who was also a passenger on the flight, denounced the airline and the crew for their behavior.
“The captain lied the entire way and said untrue things,” said Katz in an interview with Arutz Sheva.
“He said that we were soon leaving, that we would land before Shabbat. He said that he was returning to the gate but instead of returning to the gate, he went and took off.”
Yehudah Shlezinger, a reporter for Israel Hayom
, also rejected claims that there was violence, and said that haredi and religious passengers “spoke pleasantly and behaved calmly.”
Shlezinger claimed that as he was filming some of the exchanges on his phone, one of the flight attendants grabbed the device from his hand and only returned it to him when he realized that Shlezinger was a journalist.
“I didn’t see violence from the passengers,” said Shlezinger, adding “They brazenly lied to us for the entire episode.”
Some 150 passengers got off in Athens so as not to violate Shabbat, but found that there were far too few hotel rooms arranged for them and many had to share.
Rossler said that those who stayed in Athens had made a positive Shabbat atmosphere despite the circumstances, and had tried to make the best of the situation.
Once they saw the media reports blaming haredim for the incident however, many became outraged and formed a WhatsApp group with the intention of suing El Al to force the company into acknowledging the behavior of the pilots was wrong and to apologize.
Despite the disastrous flight, the tribulations of the passengers who stayed in Athens were not over.
After Shabbat ended on Saturday evening, they had to leave their rooms by 6 p.m. and then left to Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport.
The planes sent by El Al to ferry them to Israel arrived only late at night, however, and the passengers were forced to wait five hours in the airport until 11:30 p.m. to board. They took off only at midnight, arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport at 1:40 in the morning.
El Al noted in response to the public furor that the incident generated that many flights were canceled and delayed because of the snow storm, including flights to Israel by other airlines, and said that despite this, El Al had managed to take off.
“Unfortunately, after taking off we realized that due to weather conditions, the flight would not be able to get to Israel before the beginning of Shabbat and therefore we decided to land in Athens,” said the company in a statement to the press.
El Al added that it would be filing a complaint to the police for violent behavior on the flight, saying “We view very seriously the severe behavior of some of the passengers on the flight from New York towards the flight staff.”
Despite this statement, a spokesman for El Al refused to say how many passengers the company was filing complaints against.
He also refused to say why religious passengers had not been allowed to get off the plane in New York, or if and why the captain had lied to them when he said he was returning to the gate.
In addition, he declined to say why the flight attendants had been late and why, unlike the flight attendants, all the passengers had been able to arrive on time despite the weather conditions.
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