The Travel Adviser: May day

In the US, making a false mayday call is a federal crime, carrying sanctions of up to six years imprisonment.

May 12, 2012 22:59
An El Al plane taxiing down the runway

311_el al plane. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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‘May Day” brings to mind two distinct connotations. The first one being that May 1st is a celebration of the International Labor movement. Celebrated as a national holiday in dozens of countries, its heavily socialist tone came to the forefront at the apex of the communist movement. Its origins are actually from an event in Chicago back in 1886.

The police were trying to break up a public assembly during a general strike, when someone hurled a bomb at them. Now known as the Haymarket affair, the police reacted by firing at the workers, killing dozens of demonstrators as well as several of their own officers.

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From tiny acorns grow giant oaks, and May Day celebrations have often been used as focal points for demonstrations. “Power to the People” is now resonated in the US, for example with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

My other cognizance of the expression “mayday” harkens back to the international signal used primarily in shipping and aviation circles signalling a life-threatening emergency event. Instructed to repeat the word three times to avoid any confusion and to overwhelm any miscellaneous chatter, use of this word demands an immediate reaction. In fact, making a hoax mayday call in many countries is a criminal act. In the US, making a false distress call is a federal crime, carrying sanctions of up to six years imprisonment.

Thus, I tread carefully in my homage to El Al in asking in this merry month of May: which “May Day” definition is more applicable?

Just last week the president of the state of Israel elected to fly Air Canada to Toronto rather than El Al! The airline is hemorrhaging money left and right. Brighter minds than mine are considering a multitude of options to turn the ship around. In many corporations, the first wave of cutbacks is usually internal. Less overtime, less staff and a reduction in middle management are some of the basic steps companies take to reduce expenses. El Al has also been seriously reviewing its entire corporate structure, along with staffing levels and employees’ conditions. Mayday!

Rather than implement them immediately, the head of the Histadrut, Israel’s Labor Federation, convinced the CEO of El Al not to make any more changes this month. El Al reluctantly agreed. Other committees at El Al have floated the proposal that El Al split into two; one El Al to focus on long-range, more profitable routes, the other company to become a low-cost carrier battling with the Easy Jets and Ryan Airs that have proliferated throughout Europe, offering rock bottom prices with meager services.


I am hesitant to pop El Al’s bubble but until they can get their unions to agree to a massive pay reduction, there is little chance they could be an effective competitor in the low-cost marketplace. Burdened by fuel-guzzling aircraft, expensive security procedures and ground and air personnel earning top dollars, this trial balloon should be expunged quickly. Mayday, mayday!

Airlines, like so many companies, provide a service. Airlines are first and foremost in the service industry. Yes clients, want safety; of course they look for good prices. But in the end how one is treated from the time he checks in until he reaches his final destination is what most passengers recollect.

SO WHEN El Al abuses and misdirects an octogenarian couple on a flight to the US, it elicits a primal reaction: Workers of the world unite – Mayday. For your kind discernment, here is the woeful tale.

The Kirshes are not youngsters. Hardworking individuals, well into their senior years, their first issue when booking airline tickets is to seek out the more reasonable options. No business class for them; these two have labored for over 50 years and rarely squander their savings.

Mr. Kirsh is no neophyte when it comes to the Internet. Well-versed in airline searches, he discovered a combination of El Al to London and American Airlines from there to Denver. Preferring to use his travel consultant in making the reservation so he could have some semblance of supervision, he sent his request to the agency, which made the reservation and issued tickets were issued. The times were convenient: Depart Tel Aviv at 10:15 am; land in London at 1:35 pm; switch over to American at 4:05 pm; land in Denver that same evening at 6:45 pm.

Arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport for their morning flight, they completed the check-in process and went through passport control only to be met with a sign flashing an ominous message: Flight Delayed.

A few hours went by until El Al sadly announced that their flight was cancelled. Not to worry, though, El Al ground staff was professional and efficient and re-booked them on a nonstop flight to JFK. OK, so the flight wouldn’t depart until 10 hours later at 7:15 pm and they would only land at JFK after midnight, but they were assured that someone from El Al would meet them to arrange their connecting flight to Denver.

Keep in mind that Mr. Kirsh is 86 years young and complied in full with El Al personnel. The couple was even given meal vouchers to use at Ben-Gurion before boarding their flight.

Family members and their travel agent used the time to confirm with El Al that this elderly couple would not be abandoned at JFK airport when they arrived. In fact, Adi at El Al reassured their daughter that they would be met, escorted to an airport hotel and be given ground transportation for their connecting flight the next morning from LaGuardia Airport.

They arrived at JFK and the only person waiting was the wheelchair attendant who took them to collect their luggage, only to discover that it, too, was a “no-show.”

No luggage, no representative, they crawled into a cab, went to LaGuardia and spent the night at the airport waiting for their morning flight. One of their two suitcases never arrived and has yet to be found.

After fruitless phone calls to El Al, it was suggested that the Kirshes immediately put into writing all of their complaints and they did so forthwith. El Al reacted to their email almost immediately with this reply: “Thank you for your feedback, which we will thoroughly evaluate and reply to within 15-30 days. We will do our utmost to resolve the issue to your satisfaction and be worthy of your having chosen to fly with us.”

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem.

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