A letter to El Al’s new owner, Eli Rozenberg

Never being a believer of everything I read in the papers, I will take with a grain of salt your comments on two of your goals for El Al: punctuality and upgrading food services.

El Al plane (photo credit: ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS)
El Al plane
(photo credit: ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS)
 Dear Eli,
I wanted to take this opportunity to congratulate you publicly on you gaining majority control of El Al, Israel’s beleaguered, besieged, blockaded and ultimately broken so-called national airline. Her Zionist history makes all of us, new immigrants and old proud that an airline with El Al’s sterling record of security and serving the State of Israel is second to none. 
How many of us remember our first El Al flight, with rude flight attendants, Israelis walking the aisles as if the seats assigned did not belong to them and ultra-Orthodox passengers haranguing female fliers to move their seats? Conversely, the Zionist zeal I felt when the El Al plane landed at Lod Airport with everyone on the plane applauding still brings a wide smile to my face.
Eli, youth has its advantages, so while your dad may have endured years of shoddy equipment, arrogant pilots grounding the airline, you have not experienced the decades of ineptitude that has come to represent El Al. Horrific management, poor labor relations, poor on-time performances and equipment that existed long before you were born led many a frequent flier to avoid flying El Al. 
But a couple of years ago, sanity came into El Al. Yes, it still had a majority of workers with lifetime jobs producing nothing of value, but a core group of dedicated airline professionals began turning El Al around.
Their frequent flyer program improved, new routes were open and planned, and far more importantly, Boeing created a 787 Dreamliner that El Al lapped up like cats do with a bowl of milk. Now having an aircraft they could be proud of, now having three distinct types if service, Economy, Premium & Business class, El Al could final compete on the world map. 
Can you imagine me having to sell a family to Toronto only two years ago? The plane had a pull-down screen where one movie was shown. There were ashtrays in the seat rests, and while smoking was banned on all El Al flights, the décor was definitely 1970s. My business clientele was flying 747s in a seat configuration from the 1980s until the Dreamliners came on the market.
Never being a believer of everything I read in the papers, I will take with a grain of salt your comments on two of your goals for El Al: punctuality and upgrading food services. Now I am hoping this is total hogwash. I find it hard to maintain that in light of everything that has happened, the only two items you mentioned were getting the planes to their destinations on time and improving what passengers nosh.
I’m sure you’ve taken dozens of El Al flights in your nearly three decades. I’ve sold over 10,000 El Al flights in my career, so let me clue you in on what peeves the flying public before proffering advice on El AL on the ground. 
Before you and I existed, El Al was jokingly known as Every Landing Always Late. Quite true and even pre-COVID-19, El Al’s on time performance always ranked at the bottom. It is an issue. I would love to see those numbers improved but most of the travel professionals realize that delays can occur. We do not plan an important business meeting 30 minutes after a flight is scheduled to land, and we certainly don’t book a connecting flight without a reasonable time to make the connection.
IF YOU WANT a better goal, aim for handling late arrivals or canceled flights. Delta canceled her scheduled flight for the eve of Rosh Hashanah this year. Yes, an entire plane filled with Israelis from JFK on Wednesday night, September 16, coming in for Rosh Hashanah was scrapped due to equipment issues. Every single passenger was moved to another airline. It was not easy and am sure tempers were frayed but after a few hours all the passengers were moved.
In the past, Eli, El Al rebooked passengers on the next available flight on El Al even if it was days away from the original flight. Over the years, trying to get El Al to move a client to another airline was a major chore, needing to justify that said passenger actually wanted to fly on said date and time and not when El Al deemed it prudent. El Al built its network to North America using other airlines as their partner for onward connections. Woe to the passenger who missed the connection, and El Al coolly informed the passenger that the connecting airline must rebook him and not the original ticket airline.
Your other reported goal was upgrading food service. Seriously? Please tell me that was fake news. The one constant on El Al from my passengers over the years has been the food. Not rave reviews, and nobody has ever told me it reminded him of the steak he got at Mike’s Bistro. Yes, by offering a variety of kosher meals, El Al runs the risk that a last-minute booking may not have a glatt kosher meal available, and the passenger most likely will turn up the nose with a regular kosher meal, but that’s it. Too be honest, most people do not fly to eat. They know airline food is at best tolerable and they come in with very low expectations.
Onboard passengers want comfortable seats, clean restrooms, a vibrant entertainment network and a polite crew. El Al must convince the flying public when she resumes flights to New York, London and Paris in mid-October that every possible cleaning and disinfectant factor has been taken into account. How will El Al sanitize her planes? 
The flying public wants fair and reasonable airfares. The competition is brutal, and recovery from COVID-19 to 2019 levels will still take months if not years. Prices to most destinations have plummeted as much as 20%, and in Israel, new peace agreements may save costs for El Al when flying to the East, but Emirates and Etihad have sterling reputations in the aviation industry, and have no problems lowering their fares to conquer new destinations.
Eli, these are the easy goals and actually El Al has several professionals who grasped the issue last year and began making inroads. Yes, they were prodded by so many airlines coming into Israel, and El Al lost her monopoly to both India and China, which caused a greater fall in revenue.
YOUR CHALLENGE, my friend, is the vast majority of those working in El Al. Our socialist labor system will be alien to someone coming from a capitalist background. In a yeshiva you learn through daily lectures as well as in study pairs. Your mind is trained to question, to parry back and forth with respectable dialogue. In El Al, dialogue is a word rarely used. 
Yes, there are daily briefings, goals are set, objectives are outlined, but in the end too many of the tenured employees do whatever they want, knowing they can barely be disciplined let alone be terminated. Making one’s benchmark may lead to a greater pay day, but there are enough whistles and bells built into their contracts that promised rewards rarely does the trick. One would think that pride of the airline, creating something for the ages, and serving the paying public would motivate the average El Al worker. You would be wrong.
El Al for years has always been a terrific marketer. Whenever there is a new route or plane, hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on promoting it. Most of Israel knew that El Al was flying to Japan before the Japanese. Every possible form of media was utilized in getting the message across. 
Visits to office and commercial accounts heralded more than six months in advance El Al’s newest destination to Asia. All for naught of course, money poured down the drain, but the execution was first class. When the Dreamliner was presented in Israel, it was like a Hollywood production, truly an epic event. 
In fact, so much was spent on marketing that there was zero coordination with revenue management which outpriced what El Al’s rivals were charging for the same plane to identical destinations. Perhaps more of that massive market budget could have been spent on discounts on the actual plane fare?
El Al’s biggest drawback on the ground that involves the public is their customer relations department. For years, the lack of a dedicated email team meant anyone with a complaint would spend lengthy wait times trying to even get a service provider on the phone, and usually was told there was nothing could be done. Reply time pre-COVID-19 could take weeks, and too often the answer is no. 
Surprisingly I know the El Al staff there and they are all wonderful caring people. It seems the problems lies in the instructions they receive from senior management that most initial requests for compensation should be denied. Upon appeal, reason does enter the equation.
It is unknown what kind of a staff you are going to inherit. Will it be one that understands COVID-19 means throwing everything that had been done and starting all over? Or one that thinks it worked in the past (which it did not) so why try anything new?
El Al’s strength is North America and Asia. Europe is overcrowded with low-cost carriers, and while politically it must be served, that should not be the focus in 2021. El Al has the equipment and El Al has most of the routes needed. Its biggest liability and your challenge are its employees. Very few young people flocked to jobs in El Al. Outsiders were always shunned at El Al.
The source of your name is ascent. El Al’s is to the skies. So, for this to be a match made in heaven, surround yourself with the best aviation professionals you can find. Be open to new concepts and new ideas, and leave the quality of the food and on time performances to a small team. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wish you and us only success.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]