The travel adviser

Wisdom - and a call for questions - from the Travel Adviser.

winabego 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
winabego 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In this column, we're going to tackle everything connected to travel. Ever wonder why airline tickets are priced in dollars? Ever wonder why the Israeli government allows wholesalers to advertise holiday packages without mentioning the myriad of taxes involved? Ever wonder why El Al actively opposes an "Open Skies" policy ? Ever wondered why, in a world with so many airline alliances, El Al remains an orphan? Do you know what you're allowed to bring into England? Do you know why you can bring two pieces of 23 kilos each when flying to New York, but only 20 kilos when heading to Sydney? The travel industry is one of the largest providers of revenue for any government. Leaving aside the massive numbers of jobs created, the average tourist spends over $150 each day he or she's visiting another country. So let's start with my biggest pet peeve, championed by our recently privatized national carrier, El Al - the decision to list airline fares in US dollars. Eagerly copied by every other airline, Israel's carrier remains one of the few embarrassed to use its country's own currency. Initiated over 30 years ago due to rampant inflation, this travesty has been allowed to continue by successive governments ever since. Enquire about a ticket in England, and you'll be quoted in pounds sterling; need to fly from Cape Town to Rome, the price is in rands. The rationale is very easy to comprehend; when the dollar is high, so too are your profits. When the dollar dips, so goes that hidden edge. Yet the largest segment of any business is its labor costs and - surprise, surprise - employees' wages are set and paid in shekels. So while airlines hedge their bets, we the consumer suffer. The Bank of Israel may frown upon the practice, but the Knesset sits idly by letting this arcane practice continue. The message that we send to the world is that our currency is simply not mature enough and that we must subvert our own economic interests. Prices should be set in shekels and, like all commodities, airlines can change their fares whenever they choose. Government intervention is also badly needed when it comes to "Open Skies." Let's be very clear on this. Competition not only benefits the consumer, it strengthens businesses. Look at what has occurred in the coffee shop arena. Having a multitude of competitors has led to lower costs, better service, higher profits and a well-earned reputation that our chains can compete on a global scale. Pop into the newly opened Aroma Coffee Shop in Manhattan to see what competition here has produced. So what is meant by the oft-used Open Skies concept? It's not some trumped-up public relations scheme by the Ministry of Tourism offering $99 tickets to London. It means that whatever airline wants to fly to and from Israel should be allowed to do so. Notice how many airlines fly nonstop to South Africa or Thailand. That's right, only El Al! Remember how often El Al has gone to court to thwart competition on its lucrative route to New York? It took the Supreme Court to allow Israir to fly to the Big Apple. Lufthansa, Alitalia and Air France all had to employ lawyers when they simply wanted to increase the frequency of their flights! Opposed by El Al, worried that it would lead to lower prices, it took the courts to finally force the issue. There is another obligation that is required of the government. Security costs, primarily when they concern Israeli airlines, should be borne by the government. While blue and white signifies many things, the lure of preventing an attack on an Israeli airline should remain solely under the purview of the government. There remains, though, the issue of consumer protection. If we permit airlines to fly to Israel, we must demand basic conditions. While legally obligated to meet our stringent security requirements, the Ministry of Transportation gives no protection to the consumer. Just last year, we saw a bevy of beauties heralding the arrival of Spanair. Fresh competition between Tel Aviv and Spain was proudly proclaimed. Inexpensive fares continuing on to South America were published. Yet surprisingly, nobody thought about the travelling public. No bond was required, no bank guarantee proffered. When Spanair went belly up and ceased operations, who suffered the loss? The consumer. Unable to learn from similar scenarios with TWA and Tower Air, the government took the easy way out - Buyer Beware. Passengers were stranded without recourse. So while I firmly favor Open Skies, it would be reasonable to insist that it be regulated to protect the flying public. So there it is - a modest attempt from an individual who has been in this industry since 1981 and subscribes to the simple motto, "The customer comes first." Send me your questions; pepper me with your concerns; challenge my convictions and I'll strive to be your "Travel Adviser." Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions and comments, e-mail him at