The Travel Adviser: The future is now – except for El AL

George Bernard Shaw said it best: “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”

An El Al airliner. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An El Al airliner.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
No doubt you have read the recent financial headline that Wizz Air, a Hungarian low-cost airline, will begin four weekly flights this summer between Tel Aviv & London. Hopefully you saw that Air Canada is bringing back nonstop flights to Montreal this summer.
By now you’re aware that United Airlines is flying daily to San Francisco. Catch the news that Cathay Pacific will start flying next month to Hong Kong. Be it London or Montreal, San Francisco or Hong Kong, the Open Skies have never been more open.
I won’t bore you with the list of new cities added by Easy Jet and Ryan Air; suffice it to say half the cities are places most of you have never dreamt of flying to... until now. With winter morphing into spring next month, the world’s airlines have descended upon Israel and like a lemon tree sprouting her fruit; the options for the Israeli traveler have never been more varied. Airline prices continue to plummet and the competition and near over-capacity means that flying to or from Israel in 2017 will be incredibly reasonable. Where does El Al fit in to this jumbled picture? No doubt, El Al, still considered Israel’s national airline with the recent conclusion of its pilots’ strike, has a multitude of destinations they are ready to foist upon the unsuspecting public. We know they are getting new equipment; it is in every press release they distribute. Six months ago El Al was contemplating opening up a flight to San Francisco; sadly United beat them to the market. El Al has been dropping hints about flying to Montreal; it seems someone in Canada heard the talk and decided to cut them off at the pass and bring Air Canada into the picture. El Al, while dropping hints of new destinations, remains silent in the face of this onslaught of new carriers and new cities.
Israel is often spoken of as the Start-Up Nation, combining innovation with imagination, raising millions of dollars in venture capital and creating hundreds of companies. Recently, a Jerusalem company, Our Crowd, one of the world leaders in Venture Capital held its annual Global Investment summit in Jerusalem. Some 6,000 participants were there, flying in from 82 countries, each person imbued with their vision: “Spark the Next Wave of Innovation.” The Jerusalem International Conference Center was filled with fascinating technological projects and excitement as information was shared. More than 200 multinational corporations, including Honda, Innogy, GE, Shell, Intuit, Microsoft and Samsung Ventures were represented. Israeli entrepreneurs and international investors met hoping for future successful collaborations to go forth from the Start-Up Nation.
Like at all such conferences, Our Crowd management reached out to airlines to become a sponsor and deepen their brand. In fact I’d hazard a guess that almost 100% of the attendees had flown a plane recently. We’re talking about movers and shakers, dreamers and schemers; what better venue for El Al to unfold their vision for the future? Would they announce new routes to the Far East; decide to compete for a larger piece of the Silicon Valley pie? OurCrowd, the leading global equity crowdfunding platform for accredited investors, is managed by a team of seasoned investment professionals and led by serial entrepreneur Jon Medved, and for me radiates Zionism in its purest form. Created in Jerusalem, the OurCrowd community of almost 17,000 investors from more than 110 countries has invested more than $400,000,000 into 110 portfolio companies and funds almost all based in Israel.
Thus, it was a natural for El Al to be involved. El Al has been trumpeting their future; trying to put their past behind them. They’ve created a branded credit card and invested millions in new equipment, so it would seem to be a natural fit. When I broached the idea to my El Al sales representative, she salivated with the anticipation of reaching such a captive audience. The Israel branch of El Al, by far the largest branch of the airline, is populated with some of the brightest and best in the industry. Some are young; others are grizzled veterans; the vast majority are there to assist the travel agency community. Unfortunately their decision-making ability is severely hampered by El Al management.
Over the years, we’ve come up with ideas to strengthen the El Al brand, bring in more passengers, and increase revenue, only to be thwarted time after time by senior management. I long ago realized that trying to understand the El Al’s decision-making logic was best left to individuals far smarter than I am. Take for example my struggle to promote El Al’s flight to Toronto in a plane more than 20 years old where movies are shown on a central screen popular when the movie Airplane first came out. Compare that with Air Canada’s Dreamliner plane with a multitude of goodies in every seat. It was suggested that perhaps El Al offer more frequent flier points to woo flyers. It was proposed that they offer a second free checked bag for those booking in advance. All recommendations fell by the wayside and El Al’s sales managers and travel agents were left selling El Al to Toronto by touting the security issue alone.
How can it be that the staff of the Israel Branch is so much more in tune with the needs of the flying public than their own management? Sharon A. is my latest sales rep. She’s in charge of hundreds of agents but finds the time to answer their emails daily, offers creative solutions when problems arise and lends a sympathetic ear to the travel agency community.
Maya Z. morphed from being our sales rep to being the account manager for one of our largest corporate accounts, with over $1 million in annual sales on El Al.
She’s young, dynamic and hungry. She would like that company to only fly El Al, regardless of the price and despite the lousy equipment and poor connections with their airline partners. My staff loves her. Her enthusiasm for her employer is awe inspiring.
She, like many in the Israel branch, started their career in El Al in the skies; she was a flight attendant on El Al for nearly two years. She can regale us with stories of both the disgruntled and delirious flyer. She can drop names of those famous who flew with her and bring tears to our eyes as she tells us of the families that saved up money to fly abroad for the first time. She moved into Sales at the Israel branch believing she could make a change in El Al and started in their corporate division late last year.
She listens to us, grasps quickly what is needed and saw the opportunity to get El Al involved at Our Crowd’s summit immediately.
Of course, as noted, her decision- making ability is dependent solely on El Al management. So propose she did, but management demurred. She didn’t accept no for an answer and by cajoling and coaxing, consulting and conferring, a minor miracle was achieved. This process took several months, but somehow, someway, El Al would participate in the Summit and signed up for two years.
Maya was even asked to chair an innovation panel and the feedback received can only benefit El Al in the future. So we now know that El Al is able to make changes when pushed hard enough.
To be equitable, El Al prices are generally comparable to those of the other major airlines that fly to and from Israel and sometimes even a notch cheaper. Put emphasis on the word major, though. You can find cheaper flights, but they are usually with charters, low-cost or less-known airlines with multiple stopovers.
Additionally, El Al’s business- and firstclass prices are comparatively more expensive than most of the other carriers that offer business class to and from Israel.
Here El Al’s stance is quite emphatic in their fervent belief that people will pay more to fly El Al.
Professionally, I find their argument specious at best in my business. The vast majority of my business clientele eschew El Al for several reasons, starting with their high fares and their inferior equipment.
Yes, there is a core group of passengers who will fly only El Al, both for sentimental and security issues, regardless of their competition. I recently flew back from Los Angeles and when I discovered passengers whose flight started in San Francisco, where United Airlines departs nonstop to Tel Aviv, they sheepishly admitted they felt safer on El Al. So be it, but with the pilots issue finally put to bed, El Al must focus on customer service.
Here’s a complaint from one passenger: “As a frequent flyer of El Al, I’ve learned to deal with the sometimes outdated plane interior, long waiting lines at Ben-Gurion Airport (both for check-in and security), delays and the absence of a proper in-flight entertainment system on European flights. However, on our last two flights with El Al, the cabin crew managed to reach an ultimate low for service standards. The night (early morning) flight from Tel Aviv to Brussels was packed with screaming kids and praying men who hijacked the plane to turn it into one big playground. For five early morning hours we had to suffer from the constant aisle traffic, loud screaming and ultra-Orthodox men and kids bumping into other passengers. Although El Al can’t be blamed for screaming kids and annoying passengers, they should be able to cope with it. Unfortunately the crew decided not to act upon our (and others’) requests to stop the mayhem.
So, what’s El-Al’s excuse?” In El Al’s defense we do get these comments: “Tel Aviv to Zurich. The check-in was very pleasant. The lady took great lengths to tell me I did not need to check my bag in and could take it on board. I proceeded through the rigorous Ben Gurion security control. I expected extra special security for EL AL, but it was the same as for other airlines. The seat pitch was comfortable and better than Swiss. There was no in seat entertainment. Breakfast was served with a choice. I chose the omelet and it was delicious. The flight arrived on time. I hope to fly EL AL again in the future; I felt EL AL made me feel very welcome on board.”
I wish it could be reported that top management has finally gotten its act together; we do know they can hire excellent employees. They simply have trouble taking their advice. They do try to ask their most frequent fliers for suggestions, wining and dining them to show them how much they care. Sadly, they don’t implement the changes.
El Al remains, in its head office, overstaffed and under qualified, filled with senior executives afraid of their own shadows – unwilling to try to be different, to plot a different path, to be like the Start- Up nation of Israel and innovate.
George Bernard Shaw said it best: “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”
Once more I implore El AL: All successful people are big dreamers.
Imagine what your future could be – ideal in every respect – and then make it your goal to work every day toward that vision.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at