Go, El Al, go!

How I got to Israel for Independence Day.

el al 88 298 biz (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
el al 88 298 biz
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
April 19, 2010: It was Monday, the eve of Independence Day and the fifth day in the world’s largest aviation crisis that paralyzed Europe following a volcanic explosion in Iceland which left the sky of 23 countries clouded in volcanic dust.
I was left stranded in Holland, but after hearing that El Al had promised to send more jets to Europe to collect stranded Israelis, I found myself traveling to Rome, halfway across the continent by train.
After 27 hours of a nerve-racking trip, I remained doggedly determined to join the rest of the people of Israel in celebration of Independence Day. I finally arrived at Terminal 5 in Rome at 23:30.
Much to my amazement, I found a nearly empty terminal, deserted of passengers, aircraft and airline employees. Only one ticket counter had a long line of people and that was of course El Al. Exhausted Israelis from all corners of Europe had arrived to board the jumbo plane bedecked with Israeli flags.
El Al specifically sent the plane to gather Israeli travelers and bring them home to celebrate Independence Day with their families.
It was a sort of ingathering of the exiles sponsored and facilitated by El Al.
El Al, privatized in 2003, serves as the national airline. It was one of the first airlines, if not the only airline, that was able to adjust to a state of emergency in less than 24 hours when airports across Europe were forced to shut down. (See story below).
It is amazing how every time there is a national disaster or international crisis, Israel, somehow, is always among the first countries to act and lend a hand. As such a tiny country, which since its establishment has existed under constant terror and threat, it is always in a state of preparedness as well.
Zionism is still alive here and kicking.
On my way to Rome on the train, I heard from many other Israelis that numerous airlines on which they had flown did not open emergency centers to instruct passengers how to act during this emergency situation.
The Israeli media did not stop broadcasting the news that El Al was operating to return stranded Israelis home, and consequently the airline established an emergency information center to receive calls and share information on flight location points where Israelis could verify where to catch a flight back.
El Al sent 15 additional jets to transport 20,000 Israelis stuck across Europe, in places including Munich, Madrid, Barcelona and Rome. El Al also ensured that the same ticket could be used regardless of the country from which travelers were scheduled to fly from, even if the flight from that particular country had been cancelled.
In addition, the El Al crews did an amazing job, working more than 20 hours nonstop to provide the best quality of service in this time of emergency.
The flight from Rome to Tel Aviv on April 20 was the best way to begin celebrating 62 years of the State of Israel. During the soft landing at Ben-Gurion Airport at 7 a.m., I felt that there was something biblical in the operation, something like “the wings of eagles.”
As I traveled, I had much time to reflect on the country’s current state and where we are today, after 2,000 years of dreaming of returning to our homeland.
I can honestly say that my experience this past Independence Dayrenewed my belief in our state. I am back home in Sderot, the world“capital” of bomb shelters, with hope in my heart that the Jewish statewill continue to stand up for her citizens both around the world and athome.
Thanks to El Al, 20,000 Israelis made it back home in what was truly areflection of the spirit that helped make Israel independent 62 yearsago.
The writer is a photojournalist, lecturer and founder/directorof Sderot Media Center. He has conducted briefings and tours forgovernment officials, diplomats, foreign press and students from aroundthe world.