The 2004 film Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, wove together several
disparate stories, bringing them together in the quasi-satisfying
Last week, three airlines’ actions and a very angry CEO
created confusion and challenges for all involved in the airline
It was on a cold and blustery Friday night that Spanair, the
Barcelona-based airline, grounded all its airplanes. Citing the country’s
economic crisis, its owner said it would not sink any more money into the
company. Earlier in the day, a potential rescue plan for Spanair fell apart when
Qatar Airways pulled out of talks to buy a stake in the airline.
their busiest routes was between Tel Aviv and Barcelona, and thousands of
passengers were left stranded. Part of the largest airline alliance in the
world, the Star Alliance, led by such heavyweights as Lufthansa and United
Airlines, their fellow partners elected to not lift a finger.
alliances are the lifeblood of the airline industry, allowing passengers to earn
frequent flier miles, access business lounges and fly on a variety of
code-shared flights. When there’s bad weather or an airport strike, the other
airlines in the alliance gladly pick up the slack, allowing passengers to be
rebooked on another airline. But when one of their members goes belly-up, no
such sympathy is shown.
In response to the Spanair move, their “ethical”
response was to allow stranded passengers to pay up to $300 to switch their
Of greater concern, however, are the future passengers. One of
the largest conferences in Europe, the Mobile World Congress, is held each year
in Barcelona in late February. Annually attended by over 60,000 people, Israeli
companies such as CatchMedia and Vringo have planned a large presence at the
Congress. Spanair had offered an entire plane to fly in these
businesspeople, who then woke up to discover their tickets were now
Travel agents throughout Israel quickly rebooked their clients
on El Al, Iberia and Vueling flights, with the additional cost falling firmly on
the shoulders of the passengers. The reasonable travel agencies did all in their
power to credit each client in full for the price of their Spanair ticket,
taking the responsibility upon themselves to somehow get the prepaid tickets
Those that purchased online were told by Spanair
representatives to write or fax the airline’s headquarters in Barcelona in the
feeble hope they could get some type of refund. Rest assured any such
refund will take months, if not years, to receive, and nobody can give a
straight answer as to what percentage of what was paid will ever be
One week later, a Friday morning with the sun trying to peek
through the clouds, a Malev plane was attempting to fill up her fuel tanks at
Ben-Gurion airport when airport authorities requested payment of outstanding
debts. The Hungarian-based airline, with over 66 years of service, had a similar
request made by the authorities in Dublin.
Fearful that local authorities
would seize the aircraft as a guarantee, cash-strapped Malev balked, fearing it
would set a precedent and the airline would be unable to finance future
She simply stopped operating, cancelling all Malev flights,
leaving more than 7,000 passengers stranded. Although part of another airline
alliance, One World, led by BA and American airlines, their partner airlines
also chose to turn away and offered no assistance to the stranded
Where was our Transportation Minister or other government
officials throughout these airlines’ shutdowns? Nowhere to be seen or heard.
Their vaunted Open Skies policy, encouraging many airlines to fly to Israel in
the hope of increase tourism, never concerned itself with any bank guarantees to
Then to add salt to the wounds of sleepdeprived travel
professionals, French trade unions called for a four-day strike. The main
pilots’ union and Air France’s top unions asked all staff on Friday (yes,
another Friday) to stage a walkout from February 6-9. Luckily, the French
parliament had previously approved a bill to force workers in the air transport
sector to give 48 hours’ notice of any such action.
Spurred into action,
Air France quickly released a statement and encouraged passengers to rebook
their flights during these four days. Air France personnel in cooperation with
their travel professionals worked around the clock finding solutions for most
passengers with alternative flights.
This brings us to our very angry El
Al CEO, Mr. Eliezer Shkedi, who spoke recently at the Annual Conference of
Israeli travel agents. Although he heads up El Al, he pointedly requested
to speak as an Israeli citizen. Enraged and engaged, he told the tortuous
tale of El Al’s attempts to join any of the three airline alliances. It wasn’t
an issue of El Al’s stringent security conditions, or the fact that she flew
only six days a week thus forgoing potential revenue.
It was, pure and
simple, due to the fact that El Al is an Israeli airline and, more to the point
he asserted, a “Jewish” company. Rarely discussed in public, he told hundreds of
travel professionals, airline executives and seasoned journalists that there was
simply no way El Al would ever be permitted to join an alliance.
at the government, whose representatives from the Ministry of Tourism sat
stony-faced in the audience, that the policy of Open Skies, left unfettered,
could one day lead to the demise of an Israeli airline. Why, he asked, didn’t
the government demand reciprocity? If the Israeli government encourages, indeed
often subsidizes, foreign airlines to fly to Israel, why can’t they demand that
Israeli airlines have that same right?
We have one international airport,
Ben-Gurion, with one landing strip. That’s it! For years governments have
discussed building a second international airport and expanding Ben- Gurion.
Resolutions have been passed, committees have been formed. One can only hope
that by the time a fast train connects Tel Aviv and Jerusalem later this decade,
there will be some advancement.
I didn’t agree with everything Shkedi
said. Professionally, I’ve found senior management at both Arkia and
Israir seriously lacking in any forward thinking. Too often, routes are opened
up without any market research and then quickly cancelled. Personally, while I
applaud the success of EasyJet, achieving 30 percent market share on flights
between Tel Aviv and London, the Zionist in me wonders why our two Israeli
low-cost carriers could never duplicate EasyJet’s success.
nation” that is Israel sorely needs entrepreneurs and creative thinkers in these
companies. While I have no problem criticizing government policy, I fervently
believe that cogent, cohesive and comprehensive private companies are our best
path.Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.For
questions & comments, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org