The Travel Adviser: In defense of El Al and its independence

El Al’s market share continues to drop in the highly competitive marketplace.

el al 311 (photo credit: El Al)
el al 311
(photo credit: El Al)
As our country celebrates its 62nd year, it’s hard not to consider how independence has both been the bane and the blessing of our successes.
A few months ago, former OC Air Force Eliezer Shkedi was appointed CEO of El Al airlines. With a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science, he earned his master’s in systems management.
Recently, I was invited to sit down with him, primarily to offer suggestions on how to improve El Al in these challenging times. A charismatic personality, Shkedi opened the meeting by pointing out three poignant facts that he had no desire to change.
• El Al will not fly on Shabbat. • El Al will always serve kosher meals. • El Al will always ensure its security is unparalleled.
Turning the table on the half dozen travel agents at the meeting, he pointed out that these three basic tenets are not the best way to run a business, certainly not an airline business where every hour a plane is sitting on the ground means a loss of revenue.
Yet El Al’s market share continues to drop in the highly competitive marketplace.
Being so independent means that El Al is blocked, often surreptitiously, from becoming a partner in the three major airline alliances. This drawback inhibits its ability to market flights beyond its actual destinations. Sparse are the number of code-shared flights that El Al can utilize to sell a ticket.
Take Canada for instance. Beyond its flights to Toronto, El Al has no arrangement to send passengers onward to other destinations. In fact inquiries on its Web site will only proffer a flight to JFK with an American Airlines flight to Canada. Whereas American Airlines has entered into an agreement with JetBlue to add its passengers to a larger network, El Al has been stymied in this approach. Coupled with El Al’s decision to cease flying to both Chicago and Miami, its only nonstop flights to the US are to Newark, JFK or LA.
This paucity of connections is a large reason to explain why it is losing valuable market share to US and Canadian competitors. Most clients prefer one airline, or the appearance of one airline, when flying beyond their first point of entry.
Food is another issue that was raised. Continental, US Air and Delta have all chosen the path of least resistance. All of their kosher meals are glatt. The extra cost in purchasing glatt meals has been offset because both the flying public and the travel community are cognizant that when you order a kosher meal on these airlines it will be glatt kosher. One of the largest and most loyal clients of El Al is the haredim and too many complaints have been lodged with the ombudsman at El Al that their meal was not available. No doubt El Al has crunched the numbers and decided the extra cost isn’t worth it. Still it should be reconsidered.
El Al’s independence manifests itself in another facet. As the de facto national airline, it sets the tone for most airfares. That being said, as we reach another milestone, might it not be time for El Al to make the leap and price its products in our national currency – the shekel? I reiterate this is in regards to flights that originate here. Can you imagine a Brit being quoted an air ticket in US dollars? Or a South African having to convert the rand into dollars?
Our days of hyperinflation are long behind us; our shekel is not only stable but a strong and vibrant currency. Certainly it’s time for El Al to announce it is switching its air fares to the local currency. The other foreign carriers would have no choice but to follow suit, and the Israeli consumer would benefit. El Al may pay for its oil in dollars, but its labor cost, like that of all Israeli businesses, is shekel based. Politicians on both sides of the Knesset have queried this inconsistency over the years, never receiving a cogent reply.
I’m proud of all that El Al has accomplished. I know that if an airliftis needed to bring Jews from a distressed country, El Al will answerthe call. Most incoming groups, be it a church group or a Birthrightyouth mission, choose to fly El Al. Not only for its security but forthe Zionist atmosphere which still permeates its flights. Only on El Alflights have I witnessed passengers applauding upon landing. Converselyonly on El Al flights do Israeli passengers feel they can clog theaisles, ignoring fervent pleas from the flight attendants to take theirseats.
Its independence in spirit, though, cannot hide the reality: CEO Shkedimust move quickly and boldly in shaking up his staff. He must considernew routes, invest in new aircraft and decide if El Al will rest on itslaurels or go forward as the symbol of this country. If not, theloyalty of its clients will continue to dissipate and it will onlyexist in our memories.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questionsand comments on all travel related topics, e-mail him