The Travel Adviser: For El Al, mission accomplished

El Al has an open path to not just convince clients to fly them, but to retain them.

An El Al airliner. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An El Al airliner.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Let’s set the background. The expression mission accomplished was first used in World War II. Its claim to fame, and in our daily lexicon, though dates back to US president George W. Bush giving a televised address on May 1, 2003, stating that this was the end to major combat operations in Iraq. His assertion became controversial after guerrilla warfare increased during the Iraqi insurgency. Falsely accused of uttering the phrase, it was a banner that read “Mission Accomplished” that was displayed on a US aircraft carrier that mislead people.
Israeli television commentators, usually retired generals with little else to do, have been heard using that phrase each time a cease-fire is announced in the Israel- Hamas tunnel war. Obviously ignorant how often history repeats itself, the uttered phrase takes on a near sarcastic refrain.
Recently, I was asked to meet with senior management at El Al Israel Airlines to discuss what should be done, the day after the war ends. First off, we had to agree to my definition of ending. I emphasized that the potential tourist would only consider the war to have ended by a complete cessation of hostilities and not some 72-hour cease-fire where rash emotions dull one into deluding themselves that this time it will hold. It is a naïve conviction that once the war is over the mission will be accomplished.
A good friend related to me a humorous anecdote she heard at a benefit concert for lone soldiers in the IDF. The stand-up comedian related the exchange that so many of us have encountered when flying by ourselves and checking in for an El Al flight.
The young security guard with steely blue eyes looked directly at him and asked, “Are you traveling to Israel... alone?” That word was enunciated as if the thought of flying alone was anathema when coming to Israel. No doubt put up to it by his mother, who was hoping he would settle down, the next question reinforced the true intent.
“Did you pack your bags... alone?” Sheepishly he answered in the affirmative.
The last question cut him to the core: “Are you traveling for business or pleasure?” His quick retort was he was flying to see “family.”
It should be obvious to anyone residing or having visited Israel – it is home. It may be raucous and rude; it may be loud and loquacious, but nonetheless it’s ours.
For better or worse, flying El Al oozes that same emotion.
Israelis will congregate in the aisles, ignoring the request from flight attendants to sit down. An ultra-Orthodox passenger will refuse steadfastly to sit next to a woman. Babies will be wailing throughout the flight and the moment the planes lands, a round of applause will burst from all the cabins. You may not like it, you may try to avoid it like the plague, but home it is. That same senior manager at El Al tried to tease me one time when asking why after 33 years I still had such a strong American accent. I told him that Americans are lousy when it comes to learning foreign languages, but that this country is no less “mine.” That common desire, love for all things Israeli, is why so many people are choosing to fly El Al in the near future. So what preparations should El Al be considering? Opining that during the war, El Al needed to thank those few tourists who did elect to come to Israel by taking out advertisements, I reiterated that it must promote vigorously that it flies and flew in 2014, 365 days-a-year. Yes dear readers, El Al flies Saturday nights, albeit insultingly a mere two hours after Shabbat ends to several locations.
El Al should be able to ride the momentum from the war for some time. Depending upon when the war officially ends, it should be prepared to offer wonderful deals for travel the first two weeks of September.
Having been battered throughout the year from fierce competition from foreign airlines, especially Turkish Airlines, this is an opportunity that it should grab with all its might.
Turkish Airlines, which is government owned, has been seriously damaged by the rabid rants of their anti-Semitic president. Whether it was election propaganda or not, the bitter taste left in the mouths of millions of potential customers won’t soon be forgotten.
Starting Monday, August 18, the next two months will see a 20 percent reduction in the number of flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul. Turkish Airlines has been the biggest foreign carrier operating out of Ben-Gurion Airport with many travelers using Istanbul for connecting flights. Keeping in mind that Israel has never seen a large influx of Turkish tourists to our shores; the reduction is solely linked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insulting bluster. It’s not the first time, that Israelis as well as American passengers, have made their own voice heard and elected not to fly Turkish Airlines.
Less noted in all the verbiage emanating from Ankara, is Turkish Airlines announcement that due to a shortage of pilots it is hiring 200 Iranian pilots. Safe to say, the pilots are unlikely to be seen on Israeli bound flights, but could be seen on some of their connecting flights. In fact, mark my words; you’ll see Turkish Airlines reducing even more flights come winter time.
Reduced tourist traffic has caused Wizz Air, the Hungarian low-cost airline to cancel outright their flights from Tel Aviv to Prague and Warsaw. Sadly one of the results of our vaunted Open Sky Agreement is that when the airline cancels their flights before the trip has begun, the only recourse is a full refund. So, thousands of consumers who purchased these inexpensive tickets while being refunded in full, will find their new tickets to be substantially more expensive. Wizz Air only started flying to Israel in 2012 and was averaging over 30,000 passengers a month before the war broke out. This decision will increase El Al’s bottom line with it operating nonstop flights to both Prague and Warsaw.
I’ve received many complaints from readers, stating unequivocally that El AL has raised their fares and is gouging customers. As I’ve explained to them, the high season is July and August. Far more than the holiday season; far more than any imagined Christmas surcharge, summer time is when the airlines make money.
Lots of it. This canard that El Al raised fares during the war is both injurious and insulting. Prices to New York in August and early September can be had for under $1,400. Those that purchased them several months ago will have paid over $1,600. Identical fares exist and can be purchased on United Airlines to Newark, which continues to fly here twice daily and Delta Airlines to JFK with its daily night flight. In fact El Al’s competition to North America remains unfettered by the war and thus its market share will grow more from her flights to Europe. Air Canada in the middle of the war, unveiled its new aircraft, the Boeing 787, commonly known as the Dreamliner. Aiming to take an even larger bite on the route from Tel Aviv to Toronto, its low key entrance should pay off with large dividends as the flying public compares its aircraft with El Al’s antiquated Boeing 767, We are a little more than a month away from the High Holy Days. Israelis, as is their near God given right, will consider traveling abroad for some of the time. During the recent 72-hour cease-fire, it was as if a pressure cooker had exploded. The lull in hostilities resulted in a record amount of bookings as if to say – “Give me a break.”
Travel agencies and consultants were amazed at how quickly the mere illusion of peace elicited such a strong, almost primal response to spoil oneself. It will subside; passengers will quickly start asking about the price of the ticket versus the security. They won’t so quickly forgive Turkish Airlines for Erdogan’s remarks.
They won’t forget that Korean Air has yet to return to Tel Aviv. They won’t forget that Royal Jordanian omitted flying to Tel Aviv for three weeks. Mission accomplished: El Al has an open path to not just convince clients to fly them, but to retain them.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]