A new year with old challenges and fresh hopes

As we enter this new year, filled with hope and optimism on all that it will bring, let us also strive to make the flying changes that will better everyone.

311_airplane (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
We now are in the Days of Awe, the period that begins with Rosh Hashana and lasts until the end of Yom Kippur, when time is often spent in penitent self-examination. While I relish the chance to better myself, my human nature also leads me to seek out and offer suggestions so that others too, especially in the travel industry, can use this time to better themselves. With incoming tourists exceeding 3 million this year and almost a similar number of Israelis exiting, air travel remains the main mode of transport in entering and leaving this country.
This new year will bring the merger of Continental and United Airlines. No doubt by spring, the vaunted name of Continental will no longer exist and United Airlines planes will be flying to Ben-Gurion Airport twice daily instead. British Airways and Iberia are also joining forces though the success of this Spanish-English armada presents a whole slew of challenges.
EasyJet, the British low-cost carrier, has taken a huge chunk of the London-Tel Aviv market and its recent entry into flying to Geneva cannot leave the Swiss airline feeling confident.
Sterling Air will commence charter flights to Denmark in the next two months, allowing Scandinavians and Israelis inexpensive flights between their countries.
Arkia has unveiled its reply to the lowcost carriers, by creating Arkia Express.
Conceived to compete with the foreign low-cost carriers flying here, it promises an Internet-only reservation system, where, when booking several months in advance, cheap fares will be available. Initially starting with flights to Paris and Amsterdam in November, it will be expanded to Rome and Munich later in the year. The Express flight ticket does not include luggage transportation service. Nor does it include seat assignments.
Forget about free drinks or snacks; the only thing free on these flights is the use of the toilets – and this too may change.
This inevitably leads me to the crux of the issue, ably accompanied by an expansive and exhaustive study of the Top Air 8 travel gripes.
1. Luggage charges: This was embraced wholeheartedly by US carriers a few years ago whereby a plane ticket no longer included free checked bags. With the major exception of Southwest Airlines, almost all US airlines charge, and charge well, for checking in bags. On the transatlantic route, airlines still permit two checked bags for the average passenger flying to and from the Middle East. The glaring exceptions to this rule are British Airways, American Airlines and Iberia who gleefully permit only one, bringing millions of dollars into their kitties from the unwitting tourist who still naively believes he can travel with two bags.
Still EasyJet has been quite adamant in its no free checked bag policy and has managed to fill its coffers. Whether Arkia Express can pave a similar path remains to be seen.
2, Added fees: Airlines continue to play this insulting game – first quoting a fare than adding on fuel surcharges, transportation taxes and airline fees. That consumer organizations throughout the world haven’t fought this insidious game constantly surprises me. Consumers want one price. They don’t care, or need to know, how it was reached. Just add up all the darned extras and quote the fare.
3. Rude or unhelpful staff: A frequent visitor to these shores, when making a complaint, was told by the personnel at Ben- Gurion Airport, “Why don’t you leave Israel, sir, and visit another country?” So many of the complaints I receive from readers center around outright rude behavior from airline employees. Sometimes in the air, but usually it’s the staff on the ground who, no doubt tired of so many clients, prefer to insult the complainant rather than trying to solve the problem.
4. Can’t reach a live service representative: This can reach almost comical proportions here. Tourists wanting to speak to an airline to make changes on their ticket are left to fend for themselves if it’s after 5 p.m., or on a Friday or Saturday or any religious holiday, or if the airline office takes a long lunch break. It is absurd that the Tourism Ministry permits these airlines to close their offices, offering no after-hours number.
This is a service industry, and if the local office isn’t operating 24/7 it must be able to transfer you to a representative that does.
For the present, the only way to speak to an airline employee after hours is to trek to the airport in the feeble hope it has a plane flying. If not, there is simply no alternative.
Let’s hope the Arkia Express business model of relying only on the Internet does not backfire.
5. Poor communications about delays: Delays are an integral part of the airline industry. A hurricane will ripple through the entire airline’s network causing flights to be delayed or cancelled outright. Airlines try a variety of ways to get this news out.
Example, El Al leaves a mechanized recorded message on your phone. “El AL #004 has been cancelled from JFK; please make your way to Newark Airport and have a nice day” is one of their most recent recordings.
Consumers are cajoled and urged to check themselves, and never to rely upon the airlines.
Internet access is the easiest but finding cogent details about how long the delay will continue is fruitless.
The next three top air travel gripes relate to you, my dear reader.
6. Seatmates who hog your space: Okay, so you don’t want to pay to be served lousy airline food, and you do want to work or play on your laptop. Does it mean that you have to put your stuff all over your seat and mine? Does it really mean that you can recline your seat into my face? Does it mean that while you may not be petite, that seat divider between you and me is to be shared equally and my elbows don’t need to be in my lap? I’d like you not to smell of onions; I’d appreciate you not sneezing in my direction – but what I really want is for you to stay in your space and I’ll stay in mine.
7. People who hog carry-on space: This is an issue that will only cause more friction as more and more airlines charge for checked baggage. Too often passengers fill their backpacks to obscene proportions, have a roll-on bag that just meets the requirements of a carry-on piece, have decided that shopping in duty free is their birthright and stuff those overhead bins as far as the eye can see.
I’m waiting for the day when entry to an aircraft is determined by the weight of the passenger and his or her possessions. “I’m sorry Mr. Cohen; you’re only permitted to carry on 10 percent of your body weight on the plane.”
8. Crying babies, unruly kids: A colleague of mine recently returned from the island of Rhodes quipping that she thought the plane had been chartered to film a diaper commercial. She attests that almost onethird of the plane was filled with babies, with another third made up of their siblings.
She commented that the decibel level rivaled a recent rock concert she attended.
Personally I take umbrage that crying babies could be on this list – especially on international flights where the little tykes get to pay 10% of an adult fare for the privilege of being held in someone’s arms.
While I would prefer the silence over the crying of a baby, I hold no grudge against the parent.
It’s the rotten kid kicking my seat that has me pondering the idea of segregating these children in their own section. Why parents permit such behavior always amazed me.
Too often when I raise an eyebrow, I’m simply told that junior is acting out but will soon settle down. My furtive glance to a service attendant is always avoided.
So as we enter this new year, filled with hope and optimism on all that it will bring, let us also strive to make the flying changes that will better everyone.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments e-mail him at mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il.