THE TRAVEL ADVISOR: After corruption and chaos, a reckoning for El Al?

Two events years in the making these two events are indicative of both the moral and near phantasmagoric patterns rafting through El Al.

El Al is heading overseas in a bid to recruit more possible candidates. (photo credit: Courtesy)
El Al is heading overseas in a bid to recruit more possible candidates.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Shloshim” in Hebrew means “thirty.” In Judaism it’s used to describe the 30-day period following burial of the dead. The rites and rituals that a mourner is prescribed to observe, as well as those acts one is not to practice, has given me plenty of time to ponder the recent acts and reactions of the so-called “national carrier of Israel” – El Al.
No El Al is not in mourning over any physical losses. While I would attest that a company does have a soul, its last 30 days should be a clarion call for management to take pause and reflect on its future. It should be pointed out to El Al management that the following practices are observed only during the seven-day shiva mourning period and not practiced during the shloshim:
A. Sitting on a low stool; B. Remaining indoors; C. Prohibition of work.
The following prohibitions El Al took great pain to observe when 180 passengers were forced to spend Shabbat in Athens:
A. Shaving, bathing and the wearing of newly laundered clothes; B. Attending parties; C. Giving gifts or reasonable compensation to those in “mourning.”
During El Al’s last 30 days, two events transpired. Years in the making, with insider knowledge apparent to anyone who has ever flown or worked with El Al, these two events are indicative of both the moral and near phantasmagoric patterns rafting through El Al.
After years of investigation, El Al shareholder and Director Pinchas Ginsburg was arrested on insider information. Known as Pini to all of us in the industry, he owns 8% of El Al, and is also one of the owners of the Hillel Tours Travel Agency. He was indicted by the Israel Securities Authority (ISA) on charges relating to the cartel of memorial trips to Poland.
He is accused of operating a cartel, money laundering and bribery. These indictments attribute to Ginsburg, as well as others, crimes in aggravated circumstances because of the long period of time in which the alleged acts were committed. The nature of the product was trips by Israeli high school students to Jewish and Holocaust sites in Poland. Now released to house arrest he had the decency to resign from El Al’s board of directors. Besides Ginsburg, the ISA has questioned El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin, El Al VP Maintenance and Engineering Yosef Barazani, Deputy CFO Ariel Schwartzberg, and company treasurer Yacov Shahar. It is still not clear which of these people was questioned as a witness and which as a suspect, and whether arrests will be made.
Many of us have sent our children on these trips to Poland, quite a few have questioned over the years why all the agencies involved offered identical prices using identical airlines with identical itineraries. That, kind reader, is what defines a cartel. Yes I’m cognizant the investigation is still in the early stages and all parties concerned are presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. And in the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge, I would not even utter “Bah, humbug.”
ONE WOULD never confuse Zev with Bob Cratchit, the overworked, underpaid clerk in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  Zev is a prominent businessman whose economic interests lie both in Israel and the United States. Flying several times a month to both the US and Europe, he is a top-tier frequent flier on both United Airlines and El Al, and last month was ensnared by snowy weather.
I’m certain Zev’s success as a businessman is not in doubt due to his poor decision-making and extreme bad luck. His ticket was on United Airlines with his return trip originating from the city famous for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Flying from Cleveland to Newark to connect on his transatlantic flight from Newark to Tel Aviv was his plan, but when UA canceled the first leg due to inclement weather at Newark airport, Zev made his first mistake.
Rather than call his travel consultant to rebook him on another airline he leapt at the UA representative’s suggestion who informed him that a UA plane would operate but land in LaGuardia Airport. While racing to the gate he discovered that the UA flight would be so delayed that it would land in Israel well after Shabbat commenced. Again rather than reaching out to his travel consultant, he took the well-intentioned advice of his brother-in-law and purchased a brand new ticket on another airline whose record of not flying on Shabbat was unparalleled, El Al.
Instead of requesting United Airlines to rebook him, as they had already done for most of their stranded clients, he voluntarily bought a brand new ticket as time was of the essence. It should be profoundly clear to anyone who has ever had a flight disruption, the first responsibility lies solely on the airline whose flight has been delayed or canceled. It does not require the passenger to buy a brand new ticket and then assume the original airline will pay full compensation.
Zev then found himself in the unique position of being the only person on the entire plane who bought his ticket 3 hours before its scheduled departure. A comedy of errors by El Al staff and management led to a near breakdown of standard operating procedures. Start with the fact that some of El Al’s ground crew took a laborious route to JFK airport leading to the plane’s initial delayed departure. While many clients accused those flight attendants of the delay, more was made of the fact that the pilot was “forced” to wait for them. Sadly in the aftermath, the El Al spokesman was near derelict in trying to explain why they showed up so late rather than declare that airlines regulations demand, for safety issues, a minimum amount of flight attendants on an aircraft. So it wasn’t that the pilot felt obligated to wait for his tardy flight crew, he legally couldn’t depart until they showed up.
In the end they did show up and after another deicing of the plane, it departed the gate to take its place in the lengthy line to take to the heavens. A lengthy discussion took place between some of the passengers and the pilots regarding their rightful concern that the flight wouldn’t land at Ben-Gurion Airport before Shabbat began. It was during these discourses that a number of passengers requested that the plane return to the gate so they could disembark and it has been reported that the pilot acquiesced. The Sabbath-observing passengers returned to the seats, feeling smug that they had won a moral victory while the secular passengers were seething that they would arrive even later in Israel the next day.
Both parties were thus in shock when rather then returning to the gate, the plane lifted upwards. Nonplussed the pilot reported that a new flight path had been assigned and they would land in Israel, one hour prior to the commencement of Shabbat. Dinner was served, the lights were dimmed and those that could sleep fell into a reasonable slumber. Zev, before getting comfortable, congratulated himself on making a sage decision and happy he’d be with his family for Shabbat before his next flight abroad, 36 hours later.
TO DATE no intelligent reporting has discovered why 10 hours later the pilot gently got on the intercom to tell the passengers that sadly he had erred and that the plane would land Friday afternoon in Athens. He tried to reassure clients that accommodations would be made for those who chose to stay there for Shabbat while for the nonobservant a plane would be sent to bring them back to Israel.
Have you ever witnessed an event with another person and both of your reports do not match? That’s what happened next. Some passengers claim that some of the ultra-Orthodox passengers became both verbally and physically abusive to the crew. Others claim there was no violence, just a lot of raised voices from both secular and observant. El Al turned to Chabad in Greece to arrange food but upon landing in Athens, it was discovered there weren’t enough rooms in the airport and that passengers would be forced to share rooms. Others like Zev, having zero confidence in El Al, made their separate arrangements with another hotel and paid for a private room.
The secular passengers were aghast when they saw the El Al plane quickly depart Athens while they were kept stranded. Livid with anger they fumed at the arrogance of El Al, and it was only past 11 pm when an Israir plane finally returned them home. Once more, media reports failed to explain this slight, which again shows El Al was 100% correct. A flight crew cannot operate a commercial plane over a set amount of hours and thus no matter what El Al’s intentions were it would have been illegal to take passengers on the plane. That doesn’t explain why it took El Al so long to send another plane or why they were so haphazard in dealing with the rest of the passengers.
In these litigious times it came as no surprise that these “Shabbat flight” passengers would demand compensation from El Al. This group of 180 travelers say they suffered emotional distress and want El Al to apologize for saying that the religious passengers became angry and attacked cabin crew. A letter sent to the company demanded $13,000 compensation for each of the 180 passengers listed in the complaint. The letter also demanded El Al issue a public apology for the allegations that some observant passengers were violent toward the crew members.
The letter sent through attorneys claimed that airline staff “deliberately lied to passengers and disrespected them.” The letter also accused flight attendants of causing the delay, which the passengers said resulted in them “observing the Shabbat in an inconvenient place causing them emotional distress.”
In an effort to defend itself, the company went on the offensive and disseminated false information about “manifestations of violence” on the part of the passengers that never actually happened. The letter said, “This spread of malicious and false rumors about a group that most of the public already enjoys hating, and are easy to discredit,” referring to perceived animosity toward religious sectors of the population.
El Al and some passengers have alleged that several ultra-Orthodox passengers became violent toward the flight attendants – charges that were vehemently denied by many of the religious passengers on board. In a statement following the incident, El Al said it would not tolerate violence toward its staff, and said the company intends to file a complaint against at least one passenger. Observant passengers later pushed back against the claims of violence, accusing El Al staff of causing one of the delays, and saying the cabin crew had falsely told them they would be allowed to disembark and that the plane would make it to Israel on time.
Shortly thereafter, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin said a committee had been established to investigate the incident. In a letter to staff members, Usishkin said the complications on the flights “took place in a dynamic and developing reality that was not entirely controlled by the company.” Actually that’s a bald-faced lie; the entire event was completely controlled by the company. Not going back to the gate, which would have meant El Al would lose the slot at JFK, was an economic decision.
Choosing to fly to Athens and the costs incurred and that will incur due to the lawsuits is something that senior management should be held responsible. It amazes me that in most companies when an asinine decision is made causing financial and commercial losses, heads roll. At El Al, committees are formed, investigations initiated and those responsible stay at their jobs. No personal accountability is required, no recriminations are meted out and whatever lessons are learned will never be made public.
To add insult to injury, after a very short review, El Al contemptuously announced that compensation would be tendered to all passengers. No doubt it would come in the form of a cash rebate, perhaps equivalent to the price of their ticket. Or in lieu of cash a voucher valid for travel on El Al anywhere in the world. No, El Al in its arrogance offered a voucher up to $300 for travel to/from Europe. A recent gathering at the Knesset resulted in more tongue lashing to El Al, which agreed to reconsider its level of compensation. To assuage their large ultra-Orthodox clientele, CEO Usishkin proudly declared that EL Al would never operate on Shabbat in spite of the huge economic cost to the airline.
Zev meanwhile is reaching out to the Customer Relations Department at El Al to be compensated for his entire ticket, his hotel stay as well as the new ticket he had to buy for his next trip, since he never made it back home for that flight. I have no doubt that he will continue to fly with El Al and can assure nervous management of El Al, that the flying public’s memory is short and that those that complained bitterly they will never fly El Al will be easily seduced if a low El Al fare comes their way.
My own path to mourning foreshadows El Al’s own existence. Like thousands of my clients, when the phone call came that my father was dying, El Al’s nonstop to Los Angeles was the obvious choice. That after 20 years, El Al finally was able to put a decent plane – the 787 Dreamliner – on the route was simply icing on the cake. Most flyers don’t know there is a glacial difference between the personnel of El Al’s Israeli branch. Led by dedicated professionals who arch their eyebrows at the inept moves of their bosses, they support the Israeli travel agents with phenomenal service.
For me and my children flying with them to LA was a truly enjoyable experience. Did the crew seem more interactive than previous flights? Perhaps. It did appear that every hour an attendant was going through the plane asking if anything was needed. Their focus on trying to positively influence the flying experience was appreciated. Surprising at first, one can hope this will be the new norm on El Al’s planes. Truth be told, their business class cabin and seats finally compete with their rivals.
Mourning has rituals. It sets the practices and rituals that facilitate and give expression to our feelings of loss and grief. It establishes a sequence of time frames so the intensity of mourning is progressively mitigated. In other words, we must mourn, but we must also set boundaries to our mourning. To not mourn at all or to plunge into an abyss of denial is what El Al so often does. This is detrimental both to the employees of El Al as well as to their client base. To El Al management, never forget that it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything. Take the high road; if you’re going to try, go all the way.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.
For questions and comments email him at