At this time of Thanksgiving, shouldn’t El Al be thankful?

El Al has been feasting during the last few months blissfully unaware that the fog around it is not dissipating.

Breaking news (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Breaking news
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
There can be no disagreement that El Al must feel like a turkey around Thanksgiving. Feted and fattened as if there is no tomorrow, El Al has been feasting during the last few months blissfully unaware that the fog around it is not dissipating.
Recently it proudly announced that its third-quarter growth this year increased more than 245 percent. In real figures, for three months, net profit grew from $12.3 million to $42.50 million. No doubt senior management, led by retired air force chief CEO Eliezer Shkedi, was almost giddy with the results.

Proud they should be and all of 2010 should see stellar results. The question, though, is what part management played and what part the recovering economy played? Here’s a number you don’t hear El Al management discussing: El Al has lost 28% of the market share on flights to the US over the last three years. Try to grasp these numbers – over one in four passengers who flew El Al in the past elected to fly with another carrier. Keep in mind that the most profitable route from Tel Aviv is to the US, New York in particular. So what’s changed so dramatically that clients, groups and delegations that proudly chose to fly the “national carrier” of Israel now arrive and depart on other airlines? A bit of background on these uppity airlines that have nipped, nay feasted, on El Al’s North American routes.
First off is Continental Airlines, more than 10 years flying nonstop to Newark with two daily flights. Followed closely by Delta Airlines, which flies daily to JFK and, several times a week, nonstop to Atlanta.
Add to the mix US Air, heading into its second year of operation, and flying nonstop to Philadelphia. Last but not least comes Air Canada, flying nonstop to Toronto but marketing itself wisely with its connections to the US.
In these days of invasive pat downs and indelicate full body scanners, the mere mention of El Al easily tops the list of potential clients’ security issues. No airline or government would contest El Al’s basic tenet: for security, both on the ground and in the air, it is deservedly rated the best in the world. Moreover El Al’s aircrews are fortunately chosen from the elite of the Israel Air Force, adding another layer to the overall feeling that when flying El Al, your life is in good hands.
So how did El Al, with its esteemed management, lose 28% of its most profitable market in such a short time? First, there is the service level. Part and parcel of the Israeli DNA inbred on most flights is that passengers feel a deeper kinship when flying El Al. The average passenger blithely assumes El Al is state owned, forgetting that long ago it became a private company. This shared ownership leads fliers to feel more at home. The warm fuzzy feeling leads passengers to stand in the aisle and kibbitz on their cellphones during takeoff and landing, well after being told to turn off their electronic equipment.
While few passengers actually know someone who works at El Al, this misguided sense of ownership rubs many fliers the wrong way. The aircrew is often left pleading for passengers to get back to their seats and turn off their phones, and sometimes the crew has to become quite aggressive.
Just recently a longtime frequent flier of EL Al returned home on Continental. Calling me up, he went on and on about how nicely the stewards on Continental treated him. It’s a comment that reverberates throughout the industry. As much as people tease and taunt about the rationale of American customer service, on the US airlines, be it Delta or US Air or Continental, it’s an integral element. While the fake flattery of “have a nice day” may rattle some people, the vast majority prefer it.
The second reason for El Al’s precipitous drop is the US cities it flies to: Newark, New York and Los Angeles. That’s it. No longer to Chicago, hasta la vista to Miami.
El Al, for reasons that management holds closely to its chest, no longer services these two cities. No insult to New York readers, but the Big Apple really isn’t the center of the US. In fact it may come as a big surprise, but a sizable number of passengers don’t desire to fly into New York.
Washington beckons them; Silicon Valley in Northern California has its fans; the entire Bible Belt of the southern US, led by the Evangelicals traveling to Israel. None of these regions is serviced by El Al.
In fact most travel professionals and Internet sites, when asked for flights beyond New York, rarely recommend El Al.
Why in these days of airline delays, increased security and weather related issues would you want to fly two separate airlines to your desired destination? Surely it makes most sense if I’m flying to Dallas, to use, for example, Delta via Atlanta or JFK to get there. Yes I’ll still need to collect my luggage and go through US passport control, but I’ll be switching from one Delta flight to another Delta flight.
El Al would have you continue with one of its partner airlines, be it American Airlines or its newest partner, JetBlue. And if your EL Al flight arrives late, no doubt American will hold your flight or put you on the next available airline, correct? Sorry, you’ll be firmly told to go back to the El AL terminal as the ticket “belongs” to it and that it will rebook you. For years, I’ve warned El Al repeatedly this is the most relevant reason not to fly it beyond its point of origin. We know that flights have delays; we know that weather can cause a delay; all the passenger wants is not to be shunted back and forth between airlines like some yo-yo.
The third factor, price, is one that the management of EL Al has fine-tuned to great effect over the last 10 months.
Hence its excellent returns. El Al is competing primarily on the route to Newark and JFK. Assiduously matching whatever specials Continental or Delta comes out with, it often acts as a loss-leader in introducing inexpensive fares in both economy and business class.
As the only airline flying nonstop to Los Angeles, El Al charges a premium on this route. While my numbers show passengers shunning the flight because of the high fare, management assures me that the flight is both full and profitable.
Long ago I learned never to argue with the logic of airlines. Skeptical I shall remain, though. So management does have a right to crow, but unlike the skies over Israel these days, the clouds above continue to darken.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions and comments on all travel related topics, e-mail him at