THE TRAVEL ADVISOR: One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

In Israel, the travel agency community has done its best to support El Al through all of the trials and tribulations.

An El Al plane in Ben Gurion Airport (photo credit: REUTERS)
An El Al plane in Ben Gurion Airport
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One needs to go back to that 1975 cinematic masterpiece where the narrator is a schizophrenic Native American who pretends to be deaf and dumb so that everyone will ignore him to understand the plight that has infected El Al.
Forget the Danny DeVito character, but focus your glaze on the character portrayed by Jack Nicholson. His role is that of a convict who gets transferred for evaluation from a prison farm to a mental institution. He assumes it will be a less restrictive environment. Battling wits and his own survival with Nurse Ratched who runs the psychiatric ward with an iron fist. Cowing her patients through abuse, medication and sessions of electroconvulsive therapy, this battle of the wills leads to disastrous results. Far be it from me to bring forth ethical conclusions from this award-winning movie; suffice it to say that when the patients are left to run an insane asylum, chaos ensues.
El Al and its management of late has begun to exhibit signs of instability. It saw 2018 as an opportunity to regain the flying public’s confidence, to present new products alongside its ever expanding fleet of airlines. It had hoped its labor problems were an issue of the past and that it could finally do battle with all of its competitors. Sadly, it appears that El Al has zero institutional memory. Like a lobotomized patient, El Al is wobbling from side to side unable to gain a firm footing. Several recent actions have led the travel industry to wonder about their sanity.
Their recent and continual spate of canceled flights to both long-haul destinations in the US and the Far East were also matched by canceled flights to destinations much closer. In fact, just last month, five flights were canceled on the route to Boston, Beijing and Hong Kong. El Al passengers endured a near five-hour delay on a flight from Luton Airport in London. Moreover, passengers received no prior notice of the delay and had to wait many hours without an El Al representative.
Coincidentally, that same day, a Cathay Pacific flight from Manila to Hong Kong departed late resulting in passengers missing their connecting flight from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv. It is a two-hour flight from Manila to Hong Kong where a large majority of the passengers were using Hong Kong to transit to connecting flights. The Cathay Pacific flight has a capacity of 328 passengers but was operating at 80% so potentially only 262 passengers were affected. But of the 262 passengers there were only 126 passengers that had connections that they were going to miss.
Did I mention that the plane was scheduled to land at 10:45 p.m. but only arrived at 11:55 p.m.? How did Cathay Pacific handle their delay? Within the flight time, Cathay Pacific managed to rebook all of the passengers, have boarding passes set up and envelopes with each passengers name, arranged alphabetically on long tables immediately after the disembarkation. In each envelope the passenger was given the new boarding pass, a voucher for the airport hotel, and three meal vouchers. Critics will comment that there were no kosher meals. The bags were already checked ahead and the Regal Airport Hotel is inside the Hong Kong airport – a quick five-minute walk. Passengers coming to Israel commented that they were in shock with both the efficiency of Cathay Pacific and in awe that it was all prearranged.
Drift back to the El Al flight in London that same day. When the El Al representative showed up, each passenger received a coupon for 10 pounds of food, but due to the late hour there were almost no restaurants operating at that time. When they finally boarded their plane, the complaints multiplied that the airplane was old and crowded and lacked personal screens for each passenger. Neither the pilot nor the crew gave any explanation of the delay, let alone an apology or service gesture to overcome what they had transpired.
El Al did release an explanation for all of their delays: “Operational Considerations.”
Say it aloud: “Operational Considerations.” Roll it on your tongue and pray tell, what the hell does it mean?
The PR department at El Al has outdone itself; by putting those two words together they’ve created a nonsensical explanation. The truth is much simpler – El Al pilots who for many long months were negotiating with El Al have once more decided to cause havoc. Union officials claim these delays and canceled flights arise from a lack of pilots. What the pilots haven’t said is that what is truly behind their mischief is El Al’s decision to create a civilian pilots school in Florida.
The new course is designed for Israeli citizens, both men and women, at least 21 years old with matriculation certificates and having no previous flying experience. The venture, which is aimed at civilian pilots, is driven by the growing shortage of pilots and the growth in global passenger traffic. Assessments are that the number of passengers will double from four billion at present to 7.8 billion in 2036.
The cost of a civilian pilot’s license is $65,000 for two years of training, including 1,000 flight hours. What lies ahead? El Al is making no promises to hire the pilots it trains, but the looming shortage of pilots will enable the new pilots to find jobs with other Israeli or foreign airlines or other companies, such as Chinese airlines looking for pilots from anywhere in the world.
For El Al director of business development and strategy Nimrod Borovitz, Israel Air Force pilots will continue to be El Al’s spearhead. At the same time, the company is aware that not every military pilot is eager to work as a pilot in civilian life. The issue is that until El Al has a much larger choice of pilots, they remain at the mercy of their existing personnel.
Gonen Usishkin, who has been El Al’s CEO for six months now, once flew as a pilot and is now trying to direct the company away from its financial problems. He earned both his BA in economics and his MBA from Tel Aviv University. Like the last three CEOs, he was a pilot at El Al, flying those soon to be retired 747s. Until 2016, he worked as head of strategy and business development where he helped the airline acquire its fleet of 16 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, which by the end of 2019 will modernize El Al’s fleet.
Being in the pilot fraternity though has offered him no solace in these recent developments so he took to writing the company employees directly beseeching that “immediate action to improve commercial results” was necessary. The letter explains, “In the previous letter I sent you, I informed you of the challenging results in the financial statements for the first quarter of 2018. As time passes, our need to step up the pace of change and take immediate action is becoming clearer... all the company’s employees must take part in this effort.”
Usishkin is also imploring El Al’s personnel for a dramatic improvement in operational punctuality in preparation for the summer season and the High Holy Days. “This month, we were in 34th place among 42 airlines. This is not the place we want and need to be. The customer expects to leave on time and arrive safely and on time, while receiving a conscientious service experience.” Many airlines offer hard financial remunerations to their employees when certain goals, such as on-time performance, our met. No such program was spelled out in his missive.
In Israel, the travel agency community has done its best to support El Al through all of the trials and tribulations. A large majority of the Israeli public, especially first-time flyers, those who don’t speak a second language and both the young and old actually ask to fly El Al.
As the largest carrier flying in or out of Israel, El Al’s nonstop routes to dozens of destinations is something that Israeli travel agents can easily market. Its frequent flier is palatable and its support team in Israel is fantastic. The fact that El Al pays Israeli agents 5% commission is something that is greatly appreciated. Like United Airlines and Delta, to say nothing of Aeroflot or Turkish Airlines, the consideration of paying agents commission is something that has earned an undying admiration.
No more with El Al. Just last month Ushiskin declared that come June 1, 2019, he was cutting off Israeli travel agencies at the knee. Better they sell United or Delta was the message. Want to save money and fly in a better plane? Then consider Turkish Airlines. This needless confrontation with the one body that did its utmost to support El Al is both myopic and infantile.
It is far easier for a travel professional to sell a passenger flying to Toronto to spend his money on Air Canada in a beautiful plane rather than fly El Al to Toronto in a plane so old we have to market it as vintage. Any savings that El Al may benefit by this potentially illegal cessation of paying commission, will be quickly gobbled up by a loss of market share.
Travel consultants are both disruptors and advocates. Our ability to influence passengers is far stronger than El Al’s marketing department. Millions can be spent by El Al promoting its new Fly Your Way campaign to Europe this fall. A savvy travel agent can make sure his clients fly another way for far cheaper.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]