THE TRAVEL ADVISOR: Flightless in Amman

A recent letter highlights the pitfalls and problems posed by presumptuous personnel and incomplete data.

Roman Theater, Amman, July 31 (photo credit: MICHAEL WILNER)
Roman Theater, Amman, July 31
(photo credit: MICHAEL WILNER)
I’m no prophet. I can’t tell you who Israel will choose to be its next prime minister next month; I have no rational clue who will try to create a coalition after elections. About the only thing I’m certain of is that odds are pretty darn high there will be 120 MKs.
When it comes to weather forecasts in the next two months, I have no such reluctance. In fact, I would wager my bottom dollar that one of you reading this will find him or herself scrambling after a flight has been canceled or delayed due to winter weather. It could be volcanic ash streaming in from Reykjavik or another snowstorm on the East Coast of the US, but trust me – flights will be delayed and canceled throughout this winter.
How you react to it and what your rights are will make all the difference in how you overcome the obstacles. A recent letter highlights the pitfalls and problems posed by presumptuous personnel and incomplete data.
Some background is in order: Flying to North America has never been more competitive than in 2015. Flying nonstop to Newark, JFK, Los Angeles and Toronto, El Al finds her competition to Newark coming from United Airlines; to JFK from Delta Airlines; and to Toronto from Air Canada. Yes, in all of North America, there are only four airlines that fly nonstop to those four cities. US Airways (soon to be called American Airlines) has a daily flight to Philadelphia, but with no offense to the City of Brotherly Love, there’s not a huge demand for nonstop flights to there.
Airfares are reasonable, with those first four companies competing for those wishing to fly quickly and without any stops to those locales. However, there are dozens of other airlines that have flights from Tel Aviv to North America; they require stopping in a city in their flagship country, switching planes and continuing on to North American destinations far and wide.
British Airways, of course, uses London; Turkish Air flies via Istanbul; and even Royal Jordanian flies to a few cities in the US via Amman. The airline was established back in 1963 after a royal edict by King Hussein.
No matter that in 1967, aircraft were destroyed by the Israel Air Force during the Six Day War; the airline, still owned by the Jordanian government, continued to fly.
In fact, once peace was established between Jerusalem and Amman in the late 1990s, Tel Aviv was added to their flight network.
To be honest, the vast majority of clients from Israel who opt to fly Royal Jordanian are not planning on touring Jordan’s side of the Red Sea; they have no plans to take a horse or donkey to explore one of the most beautiful historical and archeological cities in the world, Petra. No, they simply are transiting Amman to fly to points beyond. The majority of those passengers are flying on to the Far East and India, with a very small sprinkling flying on to New York.
How, then, can one tempt the fickle Israeli consumer to fly Royal Jordanian? One way would be to permit two checked bags per passenger, a scarcity these days only matched by Aeroflot and Turkish Air, to those unfettered by premier frequent flier status on other airlines. It certainly doesn’t hurt that they belong to the One World Airline alliance, so those flyers can earn miles if they belong to one of their partner airlines – such as American, US Air or British Airways, for example.
The overriding deciding factor in electing to fly via an Arab country from Israel, though, is quite simply the price. It’s low, very low, hundreds of dollars less than any nonstop airline; lower than most European airlines and in recent years, always in the top three of the lowest airlines to North America.
Which is why Penelope and her daughter, Ida, chose Royal Jordanian to fly to New York. Penelope had done her homework and consulted with her travel agent, confirming the airline had an excellent safety record, no visa to Jordan was required and the layover in Amman was reasonable, at five hours.
“No kingdom for a horse,” was proclaimed, but at $720 a ticket with all the taxes included, Penelope was saving them each more than $200 – and $400 in the US buys a ton of clothes! I offer up, in her own words, along with my comments, “a summary of our sad and sorry saga.”
“If you think I should send a copy of this to Royal Jordanian, British Airways, Ben-Gurion Airport or whoever, just let me know,” added Penelope. Unequivocally, the answer is yes. While many of you may vote with your feet and in future trips avoid flying an airline that you believed injured you, not putting your complaint in writing solves nothing.
Back to her letter: “Thank you for being on the other end of the phone. I know there was nothing you could actually do, but your advice was very helpful and ultimately, despite all of the trouble (and lack of food), flying British Airways through London was the correct decision.”
No doubt, she was writing to her travel consultant, who was able to walk her through the various options, see immediately what flights could get her to New York, and assist her in knowing what to request from the ground attendant.
“On Sunday, our 7:45 a.m. flight to Jordan was delayed for six hours due to fog in Amman, and as a result we missed our connecting flight from Amman to New York City. At first, information was not very forthcoming and it was only a few hours later that we even found out the problem was fog at the airport in Amman, which was delaying the flight in Tel Aviv.” The same aircraft flies from Amman, stops in Tel Aviv for a quick turnaround and returns to Amman; if it can’t leave Amman on time, they have no other aircraft to depart from Tel Aviv. Airlines, by nature, tend to be very sparse when it comes to giving out information; it is passed out like breadcrumbs to hungry birds.
“Eventually, it became clear that even if the aircraft had arrived in Tel Aviv, we would not make our connecting flight from Amman to JFK Airport in New York.” At this stage, the decision-making process becomes critical and one needs all details available.
First off, was there a later flight from Amman to New York, or any other city in the US via which they could get to New York that evening? A quick search elicited the answer that no such flight existed. Penelope was informed that if she got on that plane to Amman, she would be forced to spend a night there. While they would be guests of Royal Jordanian in an airport hotel, they would need to wait almost 20 hours for the following day’s flight.
Reviewing every possible option to be switched to another airline, by that time of the day, not one airline had a flight that via connections in Europe could get her to the Big Apple that same day.
The Royal Jordanian station manager, Gabi, confirmed what her travel consultant had told her: Any flight via Europe would require an overnight at her expense, as Royal Jordanian would only pay for the hotel in Amman. Her consultant pointed out another wrinkle: Getting her kosher meals would be nearly impossible if she elected to while away her time in Jordan.
Gabi agreed to rebook the mother-daughter pair onto British Airways via London. The airline reiterated, however, that it would not compensate them for accommodation, nor even taxi costs. Luckily, they had friends in London who were able to put them up and the only financial loss was the 76-pound taxi fee.
“Since we had ordered kosher meals on the Royal Jordanian flights, we tried to order kosher meals on the British Airways flights. We knew we would not get them on the Tel Aviv-London leg of the trip, but we requested the meals for the London-New York flight.
At London’s Heathrow Airport, we were instructed to go to the connecting flights desk to get the boarding passes for the next day’s flight to New York; when I asked about the kosher meals, we were told they had been requested.”
NEVER ever assume that the word “request” is synonymous with “confirmed.” Too often, that window seat or vegan meal request is added too late to the reservation system to be confirmed, if made within 24 hours. Penelope saw the meals on her boarding pass; even the next morning after going through security, she approached another gate agent, who confirmed the meals had been requested. Alas, on the plane itself, the flight attendant told her there hadn’t been enough time to fill the request. Unfortunately, no alternative was found and as Penelope concluded in her letter: “We finally arrived in New York 20 hours later than planned, hungry and exhausted.”
In all candor, both Penelope and Gabi did everything that could be done. She didn’t make any unreasonable demands, she kept her tone and spoke to him in a civil manner. Her experience and calm demeanor created an environment where Gabi did everything in his power to resolve the situation, realizing there were 100 other passengers on the plane. Following his own airline’s instructions, he could only offer her a hotel voucher if she flew to Amman and spent the night there. Her own travel consultant reminded her about the kosher meals and while one might find fault with British Airways, which had almost 24 hours to fill the request, one can not hold Royal Jordanian responsible.
Weather delays are inevitable, financial compensation in most countries is quite limited. The term “force majeure” seems designed for such instances: unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone (say an airline) from fulfilling a contract. The second definition also hits home: an irresistible compulsion of greater force.
A quick email to Royal Jordanian extracted a sincere apology for the delay and an immediate compensation of the 76 pounds paid for the taxi. Was Penelope expecting more? Perhaps.
Should she have received greater compensation? I leave it to the reader to render his own conclusion.
The writer is CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. Questions and comments: [email protected]