The Travel Adviser: Festival of Lights

Enjoy this festival. Delve into the joys it offers. And never forget, Israel is the Land of Miracles.

Elal plane 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Elal plane 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When the Hasmonean family overpowered the Greeks, they searched and found only a small jar of pure oil. It was enough to light the menorah for a single day, but a miracle occurred, and they were able to light the menorah with this oil for eight days. From the following year, they established these eight days as the festival of Hanukka.
In that spirit, I present to you some near-miraculous items that have transpired of late.
1. El Al’s net profit in the third quarter of this year was over $37 million – a 79-percent leap. Its revenues for that same quarter amounted to $605m.
El Al continues to deal with the world economy being in deep crisis, which impacts the airline industry. Around the globe, airlines are taking painful steps to streamline their operations and laying off thousands of employees. Adding in the complicated geopolitical reality that defines the Middle East makes these figures even more impressive.
Somehow, El Al is finding opportunities to compete with the Open Sky policy, with limited access to any of the world’s airline alliances. Still overstaffed, technologically challenged, stymied by strong unions, El Al’s results are well nigh miraculous.
People often ask me, when planning their trips to Israel, what is the best airline to use. The short answer is usually El Al, which feeds tourists in from dozens of countries and allows them to experience the Israeli persona. While their fleet is slowly being updated, the days of surly staff have long since been assigned to the dustbin, and rarely do we receive complaints about poor service or cuisine. The other major airlines that do fly in and out of Ben-Gurion Airport offer one thing that El Al cannot, though: service on Saturday.
This leads me to miracle No. 2.
2. United Airlines. Its merger six months ago with Continental started off abysmally; clients were left on hold for hours, and the online reservation system had more bugs than a cesspool. Pulling back the first-class curtain, you could see the “friendly skies” weren’t so friendly after all. New routes were added, new planes were bought, yet customer satisfaction dropped dramatically. Spring turned into summer, and frequent fliers flocked to Delta and other airlines, tired of waiting for the kinks to be worked out.
But get worked out they did. Slowly the crews were mixed, and the far friendlier ex-Continental personnel influenced the more serious United employees. As summer turned into fall, United saw an uptick in customer satisfaction, and when the first Dreamliner, Boeing’s 787, entered its fleet, it dawned on CEO Jeff Smisek that the worse was behind them.
Business school students will study this merger for years to come; while I’ve never seen a bumpier one, the results this Hanukka have shown that United is now flying high and should enter 2013 as a fierce competitor.
3. Israeli hotels. Yes, their room rates reach rare heights, but the number of new properties being spruced up and built have now reached a fever pitch. The Tourism Ministry, headed by the effervescent Stas Meseznikov, has gone around the world promoting our small country, assuring tourists that a visit to the Holy Land will be a life-changer. Properties as diverse as the Waldorf Astoria will be opening their doors next year, while the Jerusalem Tower Hotel in the center of the capital has spent millions modernizing the place, with some of the best room rates around.
Boutique hotels exist throughout the country, offering innovative rooms with haute cuisine.
Bed & Breakfast establishments can be spotted everywhere. With incoming tourists arriving in record numbers, it feels as if a miracle in the hospitality industry has taken form.
Three million tourists should grace our shores this year – no small feat at all.
4. British Airways versus American Airlines.
A mother and daughter flew to New York to attend a family wedding. Dressed in their finest clothes, they enjoyed the exchange of nuptials, followed by a festive feast. A few more shopping days in the Big Apple, and they made their way back to their American Airlines flight, operated by British Airways from JFK to Tel Aviv, via London. They boarded their 7:35 p.m. flight around 9 p.m., which in light of the horrific weather was a great accomplishment.
The plane taxied away from the terminal to the runway, and then stopped dead in its tracks. Periodic broadcasts informed the passengers that there was a delay due to deicing.
Sadly, after five more hours, at 2 a.m., the BA flight crew announced that the flight was cancelled. Only at 4:30 a.m. were the passengers allowed to disembark; sleepdeprived and feeling like zombies, they stood in a meandering line to be updated.
The mother and daughter had obviously missed their connecting flight from London to Tel Aviv.
Being religiously observant, they could not take a later flight, as it would arrive after Shabbat had commenced, so Sunday morning their travel agent rebooked them on American Airlines, which reissued their tickets and put the blame on British Airways. BA has yet to decide what level of compensation they will receive.
Astute readers will ask: If everyone sat on the plane for an entire night, how could I put this in my Hanukka list? My retort is simple: Solving stranded passengers’ predicaments is the largest challenge travel agents face. Throw in a little hurricane, the rush of holiday travel and the luck of the Irish (or British, in this case), and getting them rebooked qualifies as a miracle.
5. Israelis. Beleaguered and besieged, surrounded on all sides by neighbors who don’t welcome our shekels with open arms, we travel the world, loquacious at best, obnoxious at worse. The country’s taxi drivers always seem to have broken meters; restaurants have prices too often fit for a king. We cajole and discuss our positions incessantly; we have more political parties than most democracies in the Western world.
Our salad bowl of immigrants grazes the Sabras, intermingling to create an impressive bouquet.
Are we a light among nations? Going back to the Book of Isaiah, where that term originated, it takes little imagination to realize that while we have much to prove and our path shall continue to be strewn with obstacles, Israel and its people have indeed shone much light.
Hanukka was my favorite holiday in the Diaspora. No doubt the smugness of having eight days of holiday while my Christian friends had just one day created a level of confidence that has never wavered.
Enjoy this festival. Delve into the joys it offers. Realize that family is one of the most important assets you can have, along with your health. And never forget, Israel is the Land of Miracles.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. [email protected]