The travel adviser: The four questions

European and Israeli consumers will benefit greatly from the huge influx of low-cost carriers flying to and from Europe this spring and summer.

Israeli kids play on Zikim beach 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli kids play on Zikim beach 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Passover is soon upon us. Be it cleaning houses or planning vacations or simply looking forward to another rendition of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. From my vantage point, I find great meaning in the Passover Haggada as a travel adventure.
While my younger sister relished in creating Haggadot to entertain and educate her guests, for me each year I appreciate the Four Questions and challenge my Seder guests with my own inquiries. The Four Questions are one of the central themes of the Seder and serve as an educational tool. Each question is structured in a way so as to arouse curiosity so that they would inquire about the answers. So in the spirit of Passover, I offer for your reading enjoyment, my Four Questions and my Four Answers.
1. Why is it that on all other flights during the year, we eat either bread or matzot, but on more and more flights we eat whatever we bring on board or purchase? Let’s be totally frank with each other, most airline food is devoid of flavor, poorly seasoned and the continual demand of desiring great cuisine at 10,000 meters has always been laughable. What has changed dramatically is that passengers have come to realize that being served edible, tasty food is a luxury best left to those people flying business or first class or flying airlines such as Turkish or Thai that still take pride in serving meals to all of their passengers.
El Al’s decision on her five low-cost routes, Larnaca, Budapest, Berlin, Kiev and Prague to only sell meals resonates deeply with every single US airline that has embraced wholeheartedly the policy of selling meals on domestic flights. Airlines both before and after the Passover and Easter holidays will continue to find new ways to increase their revenues. No longer content with selling you an air ticket, they will strive to sell you not bitter herbs but so called fresh cuisine while you fly high above the clouds.
2. Why is that on many other flights, we eat sitting or reclining, but on so few long haul El AL flights, we can’t recline our expensive business class seat 180 degrees? El Al in its King Solomon like wisdom finally joined the ranks of the big boy airlines and on her flights to and from JFK has installed lie flat beds. No longer privy to complaints from members of Israel’s Parliament, or New York’s elite, to say nothing of the Israeli venture capitalists, the beleaguered business traveler can now stretch out in business class.
Pity that El Al only had the wherewithal to upgrade their fleet on their flights to JFK, leaving their Jumbo planes to Toronto, Newark, London, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Mumbai and Beijing far behind their competitors but it’s a nice start. Early reviews have been less than sterling, but such carping will fall by the wayside as actual passengers try it.
In fact, as you retell the Haggada from your very comfortable seats, take note that most airlines too are trying to make you pay more for similar seats. Say you and your traveling partner are flying Iberia to Spain to see yet another country where Jews were forced to leave. On their flights from Tel Aviv, to and from Madrid, Iberia demands €20 if you want to sit next to one another when checking in on their site. No doubt eager to avoid any verbal disagreements, the airline leaves it up to their passengers to pay for the privilege of sitting together. Now imagine you’re a family of four with two young children – the option of forgoing that fee is far harder to avoid. United Airlines and Delta on their daily flights to the Holy Land from Newark and JFK entice the consumer to savor the delights of their Economy Comfort seats and the almost 13 cm. of extra leg room between seats. British Airlines to London and come summertime, Air Canada from Toronto have created a separate compartment on their aircraft with better seats and better food to allow those flyers unable or unwilling to pay for business class to dip their toes in the vaunted cabins of Premium Economy.
3. Why is it that on so many flights, we have no idea until we board the plane, what airline it actually is? Simply because of the acceleration of airline mergers and the constant chaos of code sharing, until you actually see the plane, one can never be certain. Take the latest megamerger, US Airways purchase of American Airlines. Do a search on any travel site for flights between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv and American Airlines flight No. 796. I assure you that when you get to Philadelphia Airport and look out windows of the terminal you’ll see a shiny US Air Airbus, awaiting your presence.
Today, tonight and throughout 2014 will be a transition year for the two carriers, which will start merging flight codes and frequent flier programs. US Air already jumped ship from the Star World Airline Alliance and joined forces with American Airlines in the British Airlines dominated One World Alliance. Travelers will continue to check in at each airline’s ticket counter. Time will soon tell us whether the merger goes smoothly or runs into turbulence.
Review the online departures at London’s Heathrow airport and on every flight from London to New York, you’ll find three different airlines, American Airlines, British Air and Iberia having identical departure times with identical departure gates. It’s like that game on beach boardwalks around the world, where there’s one pea under three cups and the gambling observer needs to identify which cup holds the pea. No wrong answer here... while the names of the actual plane have been disguised to confuse the passenger, it is fact one single plane that the passenger will embark on.
4. Why is it that on so many flights in previous years did we pay so much money to fly from Israel to nearby destinations? The answer is both UP in the air and because of the Open Sky Agreement. This month saw El Al kick off her response to the Open Sky agreement between the European Union and the State of Israel. Using new aircraft, El Al chose four ideal low-cost cities, Larnaca, Kiev, Budapest and Prague and one idiotic location, Berlin to dramatically lower the price of flights. The first four cities attract leisure passengers who may feel more loyal to flying El Al than her competitors. Berlin, though, was a destination that many businesspeople desire. While easyJet, the emblematic poster boy for low-cost airlines flies the route, Israeli frequent fliers continued paying top dollar to fly El Al. No more, Jacob D., was in pure ecstasy when told by his travel consultant that his two-day trip to Berlin, which used to cost him over $800 was only $399.
UP Airlines, the new low-cost hybrid from El Al was the brainchild of her latest CEO, David Maimon who very recently took up his post. Previously the vice president of El Al in charge of trade and aviation relations, the retired IDF colonel’s last command was the induction center. Morphing from the military to the business world, he brought with him a BA in sociology and a MBA from Derby University.
It’s the first time in over a quarter century that El Al elected to promote someone from within. Whether it’s because the owners are anxiously trying to arrange to sell the airline and prefer that senior management with a proven track record lead it throughout this journey or that finally the words of wizened business consultants and journalists pleading for some type of continuity by hiring someone from within the industry, Maimon’s main predicator for success will be viewed through the prism of their new brand.
European and Israeli consumers will benefit greatly from the huge influx of low-cost carriers flying to and from Europe this spring and summer. The three Israeli airlines, Arkia, IsraAir and El Al, will need to react quickly and deftly to stay afloat as the easyJets and Wizz Airs along with 30 other airlines bypass the Sinai Peninsula. No 40 years in the desert for them, no need for manna from the heavens, they realize that while the streets of Israel aren’t flowing with milk and honey, the Israeli consumer is parched for inexpensive fares to nearby destinations.
Hag Sameah! Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]