Revenue or reputation: El Al again faces Shabbat dilemma

“The option of completely grounding its fleet on Shabbat is simply out of the question.”

EL AL Plane 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
EL AL Plane 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Back in the late 1970s, El Al Israel Airlines Ltd., once a government company and now Israel’s largest publicly traded airline, invented a way of having its cake and eating it too: the ability to operate its aircraft on Shabbat with its pilots, flight attendants and services, while declaring that it was a kosher airline that observed Shabbat and the festivals.
Criticism in Europe that El Al’s charter subsidiary Sun D’Or International Airlines did not comply with the criteria of a fully independent airline resulted in its license being revoked. This once again, for the umpteenth time, but more sharply than ever, raises the possibility that El Al will break the long-standing taboo and fly on Shabbat.
“In any case, 2011 won’t be an easy year for El Al because of rising competition,” a source in the aviation industry recently told Globes.
“The option of completely grounding its fleet on Shabbat is simply out of the question.”
“It’s not just on Shabbat, there are also the festivals and time differences that complicate the issue,” the source said. “It can’t be Shabbat at the takeoff location or Shabbat at the destination. We haven’t even begun to talk about what this does to crew overnight costs abroad on Shabbat and a great many other aspects. It’s an incredible headache for an airline. No airline should have to deal with grounding its fleet for 20 percent of the time.”
“The religious are adamant on this point,” another industry source said. “They’ve been on this tree for a long time, and they have no intention of climbing down.”
In the absence of legal restrictions, El Al refrains from flying on Shabbat out of fear of a harsh reaction by the religious community.
Yair, a religious passenger who is a member of El Al’s frequent-fliers club, is one of many passengers who, he said, recently wrote to El Al to say he would stop flying the airline if it desecrates Shabbat.
“I prefer a goy pilot who eats pork in shrimp sauce than a Jew who desecrates Shabbat,” Yair said.
“This is a matter of principle. This plane of a foreign airline will fly on Shabbat regardless. As a Jew, there’s nothing I can do about that, but for a plane bearing the Israeli flag to fly on Shabbat – with a Jewish pilot who knowingly and deliberately desecrates Shabbat and also causes several hundred other people to do so, with a Magen David on the [plane’s] tail – this is something that everyone who treasures Shabbat must fight against.”
Globes: So you’ll fly abroad with a German or American airline, jeopardizing the jobs of Jews, because of a decision to fly on Shabbat? Yair: “If I have to, yes. There’s a limit [to what you can accept]. No German or American airline flies with a Magen David or markets itself as the airline of Israel. Do you know what El Al’s slogan is overseas?: ‘This isn’t an airline, it’s Israel.’ That’s what they’re selling.
So I should lend a hand to the Israel that they’re marketing abroad becoming an Israel of mass Shabbat desecration?” The prevailing assumption at El Al, and among various sources in the aviation industry, is that, despite everything, El Al will avoid flying on Shabbat as much as possible – and forgo a large chunk of revenue, to avoid damaging its unique brand.
Solutions under review by El Al include leasing its planes to other airlines and establishing a new and more “established” subsidiary with independent pilots and flight crews (a plan that could be problematic in view of the understandable objections by the El Al workers’ committee against sacrificing its members for the sake of the subsidiary).
Leading travel agencies declined to say whether the pending closure of Sun D’Or would reduce competition in the charter market and cause prices to rise. The agencies preferred to focus their efforts on dealing with angry Sun D’Or passengers whose April reservations might not be honored. Travel agents have been calming customers and saying it’s business as usual.
As for prices, the agents say that they will stay low.
“There’s little room to fall,” a travel agent told Globes. “Airlines are offering $99 tickets to Europe, and that will continue. Sun D’Or is an important player but not the only one. A lot of European charter airlines fly here, and both they and Israeli airlines are waiting to pick up Sun D’Or passengers if it is grounded.”
Asked whether he though El Al would fly on Shabbat, the travel agent said: “At every foreign airline, that would be the preferred solution. But it’s hard for me to believe that it will happen here. I have no doubt that we’re talking about a solution that would enable El Al to offer more flights at better times and give customers greater flexibility in planning their trips. It would also help El Al move forward a little on international alliances with airlines.
“But it’s hard to see El Al doing that. One of my colleagues told me by phone, ‘They will never fly on Shabbat. The haredim would stand at the takeoff line and throw diapers at them.’”