El Al and the haredi community took the first step toward reconciliation Tuesday night after El Al CEO Haim Romano promised in a private meeting with haredi representatives that the national carrier would never again desecrate Shabbat. Four days of crisis seemed irreversibly bound for an economically painful haredi consumer boycott slated to be announced Wednesday that threatened to cut into as much as 30 percent of El Al's revenues on flights to America and certain destinations in Europe. However, Romano seemed to set in motion negotiations that could lead to the defusing of the situation.
Non-kosher food served on El Al flight
Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknoph, secretary of the Rabbinic Council for the Holiness of Shabbat, said Tuesday evening that during a meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Romano provided verbal promises that, if committed to a legally binding written agreement, seemed to fulfill haredi conditions for a rapprochement.
"We need a written obligation, anchored in law and enforceable in a court of law, that El Al will never again desecrate Shabbat," said Goldknoph on his way out of the negotiations.
Romano was accompanied during the meeting by Yigal Arnon and Prof. Ya'acov Ne'eman, two preeminent legal advisors. The Rabbinic Council will be represented by Dr. Ya'acov Weinroth, a highly regarded haredi lawyer.
Meanwhile, leading haredi spiritual leaders continued to advise their followers to boycott El Al.
Rabbi Haim Kanyevsky reiterated his call not to fly El Al, warning it was borderline death threatening [sfek sakana] to board an El Al plane until the management did a complete repentance and promised never to desecrate Shabbat again.
Mark Feldman, CEO of Zion Tours, said El Al made a bad business decision by not immediately admitting its mistake and promising never to desecrate Shabbat again.
"I don't know what they are thinking in El Al," said Feldman, who estimated that in many flights to the US religious and haredi passengers make up as much as half of the business class section.
Feldman said that while he knows of few haredi passengers who have paid a cancellation fee to cancel their existing flights, many have asked to be booked on "any airline but El Al" in the future.
Earlier in the day, El Al was still insisting that it had nothing to apologize for.
"We have always operated as such and nothing was done differently this time," a company spokesperson said. "El Al does not fly in principle on Shabbat but there have been instances that it is forced to move passengers and has done so."
The spokesperson said the religious and haredi market made up approximately 20% of El Al's customer-base with the New York, London and Brussels routes dominating the market.
El Al is coming off a difficult year in which profits have plunged due to a 20% increase in competition, a weaker dollar, the surge in oil prices and the rapid drop in tourism resulting from the war in Lebanon.
However, it may be that the company is confident the haredi community has no option but to fly El Al given its position in the market and that it is the only company that does not operate on Shabbat.
Responding to reports that it may be in negotiations to provide a service to the haredi market, Israir said it has never flown its New York route on Shabbat but has operated European lines on Shabbat and would continue to weigh the business considerations involved in doing so.
On the New York line, the busiest for the haredi market, Israir operates seven flights a week, while Continental flies 14, against El Al's 30.