Stranded at Ben-Gurion, passengers hope for the best

Passengers vow to never fly El Al again after spending the night on the airport floor.

Passengers asleep at Ben Gurion airport during strike 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Passengers asleep at Ben Gurion airport during strike 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
After almost 24 hours in the departures hall of Ben-Gurion Airport, Derick Maregele, a Methodist minister from Cape Town, South Africa, said he had easily built up enough material for a sermon when he returns to his congregation, whenever that might be.
“I feel like a vagabond of some sort, I’ll definitely get some material from this,” said Maregele, pointing at a spot on the departures hall floor where he slept the night before. The clergyman had arrived at 9 p.m. Sunday night to catch the 1 a.m. El Al flight to Johannesburg, only to learn that the flight was canceled and that no one knew when the next flight home would be.
He said he kept one eye open off and on during the night, catching fits of sleep among the dozens of other passengers left stranded by the strike by Israeli airlines. At no point did anyone offer him a voucher for a hotel room for the night, a warm meal, or a place where he could shower and change clothes.
Like others interviewed at the departure gates on Monday, Maregele expressed a mixture of exhaustion and bewilderment, not so much at the strike – a frequent nuisance at airports around the world – but at the lack of recourse for hapless passengers on the losing end of the labor dispute.
Like others, he vowed to never fly El Al again.
“Israel is so good at things; why can’t they do this right?” the minister asked. “In South Africa this wouldn’t happen.”
South African tourists Stan Klaff and Norman Liebowitz were stewing at a cafe in the departure hall, trying to find a flight back to London from where they could fly back to Johannesburg. Not wanting to take any chances, they eventually bought tickets for Wednesday, saying at the time that they had little confidence the strike would be sorted out in the following 24 hours.
“The worst part is not knowing,” Klaff said. “If they told us it would be another 48 hours, that would be fine; instead we’re just waiting here.”
Liebowitz’s patience seemed to have long since departed.
“It’s appalling. You’d think since El Al is doing this strike they’d find some way to help us, but they’ve told us nothing.
Every few minutes the intercom says no smoking, or it tells us no firearms. Thanks, but we’d figured that out on our own,” he shrugged.
“At the end of the day I’m at the sharp end of the horn,” he continued, “and I don’t care why they’re on strike. I won’t fly El Al, my friends won’t fly El Al, and none of my business associates will fly El Al either.”
A slightly more veteran crew of departure hall castaways sat across the cafe, a group of 27 French business school students who had just finished a seven-day trip to Israel when they arrived for their flight home 26 hours earlier. The students had been booked on a 3 p.m. flight on Sunday and were told their flight had been canceled, and that they would be on a flight at 5 p.m. instead. That flight was also canceled, and the group was told to stay at the airport until 8 p.m. or they would get no compensation, said Paul Emmanuel, a 23- year-old student of EDHEC business school, and the leader of the student group that planned the trip.
Like others, Emmanuel said the students had been given no information about when their flight would leave.
“In France there are lots of strikes, but when it happens you have someone responsible, someone to speak to,” he said. “Here you have to figure it out for yourself.”
Other members of Emmanuel’s group sat around the cafe, some napping on sleeping bags and others watching movies on laptops.
They had all spent the night on the floor of the departures hall, with two students staying awake all night on watch because “there were some strange guys walking around here,” said Emmanuel.
The next day, after the group had gained some fame in the Hebrew press, they began getting some assistance from the French ambassador to Israel, Emmanuel said, and the Kakao Cafe at the airport brought them breakfast and sandwiches.
In the meantime, the interfaith group of students kept waiting for a flight that might or might not leave, an unfortunate end to a trip that had been organized to show them an Israel “you don’t see in the media,” Emmanuel said.
“We had an excellent trip this week, but it’s just disappointing that it ends like this. Our foundation’s aim was to take people and show them the real Israel,” he said – without a trace of irony.