When snow makes travel an uphill struggle

It boggles the mind that from storm to storm some airlines know how to respond, while others flounder.

Snowed in Airport 311 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Snowed in Airport 311
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
It’s time for some cold hard facts: 1. It will snow somewhere in the world this winter.
2. You will see pictures of passengers huddling in some airport.
3. Airlines will do a miserable job of updating passengers.
4. Internet sites will not be able to stand up to the pressure.
5. Customers will continue to complain that they don’t receive compensation.
Let’s be equitable and assume that the blizzard that shut down the East Coast of the US last month was one of the worse snowstorms in many years. Let’s accept the presumption that although forecast well in advance, airline executives fervently hoped that their airlines would be spared. Let’s further take for granted that, in the country with the greatest technological advances in the last 50 years, airlines and airports know exactly how to respond to snow. Surely airports such as JFK and Newark have the wherewithal to deal with any crisis.
Not quite.
It boggles the mind that from storm to storm some airlines know how to respond, while others flounder. As we dissect the major carriers who fly between the US and Israel, keep in mind one overriding fact: If you’ve been bumped from your flight and are postponed to a later one, you do not take precedence over someone who is already holding seats on your new flight.
Ignorance of this basic tenet leads to major disagreements between customers and airlines. So often travel consultants are cajoled and challenged to bump someone off the new flight so that the injured party may get to his or her final destination.
So with apologies to Clement Moore, let’s set the tone. ’Twas the night after Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The week between December 25 and January 1 is usually a quiet week. Most Western business travelers remain on the ground.
Most travelers are primarily leisure travelers who unwittingly tend to accept whatever poor treatment is dished out to them. Like hungry orphans when receiving any morsel, they tend to be passive in their demands.
There are four airlines that operate out of Israel, flying nonstop to the US. Let’s focus on them, starting with the head of the pack, El Al, with more flights to both Newark and JFK than any other airline.
Reality check: EL AL never contacted a single passenger on any of the delayed flights for more than 48 hours. Calls to El Al were received by a request that customers go to its website. On the website, all that was written were the two most offensive words: flight cancelled.
No hint of when the next flight would be, no answers to what you were supposed to do.
MY OFFICE received almost 100 requests for help. Andrea’s plea was indicative of how well El Al treated its clients. Due to fly home with her infant, she and her husband elected to return on different days. On the first day of the storm, El Al cheerfully told her to head for JFK, as the flight was flying as scheduled.
Naïvely, she bundled up her baby and headed to JFK. Passing through security, she reached the check-in counter and was told that the plane was delayed. Politely asking how long, she was firmly told it could be a few hours.
Grabbing a seat, she mollified her baby and informed her husband and travel consultant to update her if they had any information.
Nighttime stretched into early morning, with El Al’s personnel still offering optimism that soon the flight would commence boarding.
Her husband’s flight was schedule for 12 hours later and he contacted me directly.
He had received no updates from El Al on his wife’s flight, and he had no idea if she was going to be stuck at JFK another 24 hours.
Moreover he was unclear if his flight would depart as scheduled. When I informed him that his wife’s plane was still on the ground, along with three other El Al planes, he lost his composure.
My first concern was asking if his wife could leave the airport as El Al had decided not to offer hotel accommodation. With his negative response, I urged him to somehow get himself over to JFK and provide her with both moral and physical nourishment.
I reminded him that as the storm subsided, the planes would depart, and that physically being there was his best chance of getting the three of them on one plane.
Keep in mind that the skies here were clear and El Al was working at full capacity.
Why it chose to keep silent at this critical venture is a question that management has not answered. In the end, the husband did get himself to JFK, was reunited with his family and, with a lot of assistance from this side, they both managed to get seats on El Al’s first flight to Israel, but only after an additional 12 hours.
Suffice it to say, they won’t be offered any compensation.
Delta Airlines elected to keep its flight schedule from JFK to Israel a state secret.
No communication was given to the travel industry; no e-mails or faxes were received, no SMS messages sent. It’s as if Delta erased the daily flight from JFK from its consciousness.
Continental Airlines took a different route. E-mails were quickly sent, informing clients and the travel industry that dozens of flights were cancelled. Instructed not to head to the airport, passengers were able to stay put in their homes or hotels, praying that the storm would abate.
US Airways, with daily flights between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv, proved the most imaginative. Freeing clients from the burden that they could only fly on an American airline, they rebooked passengers on any available flight, be it Swiss via Zurich or BA via London.
This truly open sky policy proved to be the best response of the four airlines.
One can only hope that the airlines will learn from their mistakes. There is no excuse for shoddy communication.
Nobody can control the weather, but how one responds is the bellwether of an airline I’ll be happy to promote. Consumers are cognizant that weather delays are inevitable. They simply don’t need to accept a snow job from an inept airline.
The writer is CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.

For questions and comments, e-mail him at mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il.