El Al turbulence

El Al dumped it on the haredi passengers.

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)
Airline horror stories are legendary, and there is hardly a flyer in the world who does not have a tale of woe that they have experienced. But what happened last week has already become legend for an airline’s denigrating treatment of its passengers, a conduct exacerbated by the ensuing handling of the incident. The result was a public relations debacle and a stain on El Al that claims “it’s not just an airline. It’s Israel.”
The story begins last Thursday in New York City, where predictions of snow led everyone to plan ahead, including the 400 passengers flying to Israel on El Al flight #002, all of whom made it to the flight on time.
Except the crew.
So they arrived late. Passengers boarded at 8:30 a.m., but with the runway backed up in the snow, #002 had to wait its turn. The clock was ticking. Soon passengers started doing the math: it’s a nine-and-a-half-hour flight, Israel is seven hours ahead and Shabbat starts in Jerusalem at 4:04.
The pilot announced that the plane would soon take off and would land before Shabbat. After two-and-a-half hours sitting on the tarmac, it was now 11:40 a.m. and several dozen passengers stood up and asked to exit the plane. When flight attendants told them that they would forfeit their tickets they still agreed, because of course they would not willingly break Shabbat.
The pilot announced that he would return to the gate as soon as everyone sat down, and that anyone who wanted to deplane would be allowed to do so, while those who wanted to continue to Israel could stay aboard.
That’s what the captain said. But what he did all of a sudden to everyone’s shock, was taxi down the runway and take off.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Yehudit Rossler from Monsey, New York, said: “They kidnapped us from New York. They told us we were going back to the gate, and took off instead.”
Fanning the flames of discontent building among the passengers, four hours into the flight the captain told the passengers that because of the Haredim, the plane would stop in Athens to disembark the religious passengers who would spend Shabbat there. Non-religious passengers would also have to deplane and wait for a new one to take them to Israel.
Naturally, the non-religious passengers started blaming the religious passengers for the situation – but the pilot never explained that El Al rules prohibit landing in Tel Aviv on Shabbat.
Blaming the flight’s diversion on the requests of the religious passengers naturally fueled the growing tension. Voices were raised, but violence? Almost every blog and column denies seeing any mass violence taking place, although it was falsely reported that passengers did jostle a flight attendant.
When the plane landed, and the story started to get out, El Al was caught in a pickle: Whose fault was it? Who can be blamed?
El Al dumped it on the haredi passengers: it was an unfortunate weather problem, we were handling it OK, but then the religious ones went crazy – they rioted, they assaulted the crew!
Asked by the Post on Sunday what happened, El Al refused to answer, releasing only the same feckless statement two days in a row.
Four days after the incident, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin said the company would set up a committee to investigate what happened. What took so long?
The next day, Usishkin admitted that the Haredi passengers had not gone wild or attacked anyone on the flight.
El Al needs to investigate why the flight attendants were late; why the flight was not canceled; why the religious passengers were not allowed off the plane in New York; why the captain outright lied to the passengers when he said he was returning to the gate and then took off; and why the 400 passengers had to wait until 11:30 p.m. Saturday night to get a flight back from Athens to Israel when Shabbat was over just after 5 p.m.
El Al also said that it would be filing a complaint to the police for violent behavior on the flight. The public deserves to know how many passengers it is filing complaints against or if the violent-Haredi narrative was just a ploy to begin with.
Don’t hide, El Al. Tell the truth.