The Travel Adviser: Watching you watching me

A microcosm of society can be observed from close up, a microcosm that when flying on El Al can actually span two centuries.

El Al plane (photo credit: Courtesy)
El Al plane
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I’ll admit, I’m a voyeur. When I fly I love to “people watch.” In fact when flying solo it’s my favorite spectator sport. A microcosm of society can be observed from close up, a microcosm that when flying on El Al can actually span two centuries.
Airport check-in is the first stop. Watching husbands wiping their brows, exhausted from schlepping their bulging suitcases always brings a smile to my face. I’m reminded of hearing my wife’s dulcet tones whenever I fly with my family: “I’ll watch the kids, you just take care of the luggage.”
I long for the day when I can supervise the children and she handles the luggage.
Moreover, my beloved partner seems to believe that more is better.
My last trip, though, was my favorite type, a slice of paradise; no children, no friends, no wife. Just me and hundreds of people milling around.
El Al, like most carriers flying to North America, now permits only one free checked bag, with a maximum weight of 23 kg. The reactions of passengers to being told their suitcase were overweight varied, but fell into two main categories: bluster and denial.
Several firmly informed El Al that their scales were wrong. Many audaciously claimed they had weighed their bags prior to arriving at the airport. Some were comical: “I’ve flown every year with two bags, when did you make this change?” Or, “How come that family of four is allowed four bags?” My favorite, though, was the rather thin, tall woman who proceeded to pull clothes out of her suitcase to get down to the required weight limit. One training suit went over her jeans; then two more. A winter jacket completed her wardrobe, with no less than four scarves.
Ines had a different problem. Having resided with her husband in LA for almost 18 months she had accumulated a plethora of items she wished to take back to Israel with her. As her ticket had been purchased prior to El Al’s change in luggage policy she knew she was entitled to two checked bags.
Realizing that even two suitcases was not enough, she called El Al to inquire as to what their policy was regarding a third bag.
The El Al employee was quite sympathetic in explaining all the options to her. She could take two large suitcases, paying a fee of $25 for each five pounds over the maximum weight allowance, or a third suitcase which would cost up to $170 depending on its weight.
Flying alone, she opted to take a third suitcase rather than risk two suitcases coming apart at the seams. Snaking her way through the security procedures at LAX, she made her way to the counter. First bag was tagged and taken. Second bag was a wee bit plump, and El Al asked her for $25, to which she of coursed offered no objection.
Placing the third suitcase on the scale she was told: “$240 please.”
Gulping back tears, she explained that she had been told that the maximum cost was $170, and pointed out that this suitcase only checked in at 15 kg. Robot-like the woman at the counter replied that this was the policy.
Ines asked to speak to the supervisor, Danny, who sauntered over, took in the situation with a quick glance and told Ines she could either pay the $240 or take the suitcase back and briskly walked away. She raced after him, asking how he could treat her so inhumanely.
He never asked where she had gotten her information; his condescension hung thickly in the air. One could see how embarrassed Ines was by his stern rebuttal, and eventually she meekly paid the fee. Now I’m certain that Danny has heard every sob story in the world and I have full confidence in his decision making process. It just hurt to witness how she was treated. A very simple “I’m sorry, you must have been misinformed” would have softened the blow.
In the lounge prior to boarding, watching so many passengers load up on snacks brought a smile to my lips. The food on El Al has improved tremendously over the years and this hoarding of goodies is simply not warranted. Finding no more interesting people to observe I meandered over to the gate to board the plane.
El Al, like many airlines, tries to preboard business and first class passengers, along with passengers requiring a wheelchair. Silly El Al: Israeli passengers feel they’re all entitled to board first, and the jostling made me realize I was heading back to Israel. Fortunate to have a front row seat, I watched as the attendants assisted everyone onto the plane.
It must be said that a large majority of the flying public must be illiterate. How else can one explain why so many people ask where their seat is. Not if K&L are on the right or left side of the plane, but where Row 31 is.
Patience is most definitely a virtue among El Al’s flight attendants, as their smiles never wavered. There was the Israeli in his 30s asking if he could be bumped into business class; the bickering couple who decided they couldn’t sit next to each other and the mother with three kids who discovered her six-year-old was sitting three rows away from her.
The elderly passenger was brought onboard with his wheelchair and escorted with his carry-on to his seat. With perfect aplomb, everyone was taken care of, and the heavens awaited.
As my eyelids drooped closed, I realized that I was now the one being watched.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions & comments, e-mail him at [email protected]