The Travel Adviser: Step by step

El Al needs to close down the airline, start anew and hire those pilots willing to work under the financial terms it can pay.

El al plane at rest 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
El al plane at rest 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like a wave forming far out at sea and slowly gaining strength as it approaches the shoreline, events were too diverse to be forecast accurately.
A new product was created after months, nay years of planning. It would meet the needs of the ADD-addled consumers seeking near-instant gratification, through lower fares and quasi-exotic destinations. It would solve the onslaught of low-cost carriers picking the pockets of the established airlines.
It would put El Al back on the map as an airline innovator, rather than the ugly duckling she had become.
Like thousands before him, Koby sought a quick getaway, and a cursory Internet search found him enticed by El Al’s unbelievably low fare to Budapest, coming in with every tax known to mankind at under $300. A virtual swipe of his credit card and the electronic ticket, sans a prebooked seat or the ability to check in a bag for free, was delivered to his email. Fly Up with El Al had snagged another grateful consumer.
One could presume with great confidence that at almost the same time, El Al’s senior pilots were grumbling that gross inefficiency among El Al management meant that they, the seasoned veterans, those symbols of pride throughout the aviation world, would be asked to make a sacrifice of lowering their wages and benefits. Ground crews and airline attendants were more amenable and negotiations had begun in earnest months ago, yet a reasonable conclusion was harder to obtain than getting rid of a racist NBA team owner.
The math was very simple; any person with a rudimentary education could have spelled it out for El Al management. If you want to create a low-cost subsidiary, then you damn well better create a low-cost subsidiary.
Don’t dilly-dally by investing in new fuel-efficient planes; don’t waffle by spending millions of dollars with a new slogan (“Fly Up with El Al”), unless you’ve spun off the entire operation. The highest cost, after fuel, of any airline is the compensation, past, present and future, to airline employees. Need to save money in a new venture? Economics 101 says it bluntly: Create a new company.
Don’t market a low-cost airline, short of frills like prebooked seats or meals, and ignore that your flight and ground crews are still earning full compensation for their jobs. There is no financial way to lower the price of airline tickets, in many instances to European destinations by over 30 percent, without cutting costs.
Eliminating meals can save a few dollars. Enforcing overweight limitations on checked bags and collecting those funds will add up. Yet the most important controllable cost is that of staff compensation.
A fly on the wall over the months of inept negotiations would report that as often as El Al management begged, beseeched, threatened and cajoled, the El Al workers union steadfastly refused any and all crumbs offered. Their contract was ironclad, hardened by years, if not decades, of impotent El Al personnel giving away more and more. Potential buyers, after doing their due diligence, have continually walked away, realizing the Herculean efforts to reorganize El Al were beyond their expertise.
The pilots union itself has berated management for systematically ignoring proposals to streamline the stresses, real or imagined, faced by the airline’s pilots and employees. They’ve warned for almost a year that management’s disrespect of the employees was making it harder to motivate them to work harder and make the sacrifices needed. Both the old CEO and the new CEO, David Maimon, are unwilling to meet the pilots’ demands, knowing it will only deepen operational losses.
Like a throng of spoiled children, the pilots union decided not to order a strike. While Koby was making his way to Ben-Gurion Airport for his flight to Budapest, the El Al pilots scheduled to fly to Budapest, Bucharest, Munich and London conspired to delay their work shift. No reason was given for their absence, phone calls went unanswered and El Al personnel on the ground had no intelligent answer to give to the clients.
Checked in and meandering through Duty-Free, passengers were perplexed by the huge signs on the departure board that kept saying “DELAYED.”
Eventually the flight to Munich was canceled outright, while the other three flights departed after four hours. For some reason, this industry action caught the media’s attention. Leading the evening news broadcast and making the front page of the newspapers, pundits theorized as if they had discovered a new chemical element.
Fair and balanced reporting tried to present the case that the pilots were only worried about being overworked and incapable of safely flying a plane.
Sadly, a very brief search would have found this insipid behavior had delayed flights to New York, Mumbai and Johannesburg. The excuses were always vague and noncommittal. No pilot would ever come forward and state the true reason why he failed to show up on time for his flight.
The terse press release from El Al CEO Maimon stated that he “and the management team have been working to find a way to implement the company’s plan for industrial activating and to have flights departing on schedule, while minimizing discomfort to the passengers.”
Ingenuous in its wording, the reality is that the only solution for El Al is to create a new and separate entity – as management has no secret plan to prevent these lollygagging employees from implementing these actions.
The costs incurred to El Al by these delays are only adding to her financial losses. Israeli consumer legislation has no sympathy for these sycophants. Passengers whose flights are canceled can expect to be given a free ticket, valid for one year to any location that El Al flies. So those 158 passengers who never flew to Munich can parlay their ticket into an $1,800 ticket to Los Angeles or Hong Kong if they so desire.
El Al must be shuttered. If that means declaring bankruptcy and risking a large-scale strike, so be it.
Any goodwill that El Al earns by focusing on its safety record is whittled away by these delays. Clients turn to me asking if they should reconsider their commitment to El Al or forgo making a future reservation, out of fear they may never reach their desired destination.
It was just last summer that this same pilot’s union made a public threat, warning there was concern that flights could be disrupted. They had the chutzpah to express their apologies in advance to passengers for any delays, peddling the putrid policy that they alone were acting on the sole motivator of passenger safety, and could not acquiesce to any of management’s requests.
I fervently believe that El Al’s pilots are the best in the world, trained in the Israel Air Force with years of combat experience and the deeply honed skill-set to navigate through any storm. However, as great as their well-deserved reputation is, they need to be fired outright.
El Al needs to close down the airline, start anew and hire those pilots willing to work under the financial terms it can pay – as is the case with the rest of the airline industry.
The days of El Al pilots writing their own tickets must come to an end.
Mark Feldman is CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments: [email protected]