Once upon a time, before the advent of Channel 2, Israelis used to file into cinemas long before the movie actually started: no one wanted to be late for the commercials - a rare sight at the time. Today, when commercials have become a long established nuisance, there is only one remaining venue to which no one wants to be late for: the airport - if not necessarily for the sake of flying, then for the duty-free shopping experience.

Nevertheless, even Israelis, avid fans of tax-exempt shopping, may find themselves arriving late at the airport due to congested traffic on the way, accidents, a delayed connecting flight or any other unfortunate mishap. In such cases, the late passengers might be left behind, even if the airplane is still on the ground. Sometimes this occurs even while boarding is still in progress, with passengers from the waiting list taking the seats. During the main tourist season this kind of procedure is anything but rare.

D.K., a businessman who recently went on a business trip to San Francisco, experienced this agonizing affair first hand. Since El Al, his airline of choice, does not fly there, he was issued an El Al ticket to New York and a ticket for a connecting flight with American Airlines.

On the way there everything went smoothly, but on the way back he ran into a problem: "There were only two hours to spare between the regional flight and the connecting flight," says D.K, "Although it seemed like little time, I assumed that El Al, which issued the ticket, is aware of this schedule and will take proper care of me."

However, an hour's delay in the American Airlines' flight to New York meant D.K arrived at the airport only 50 minutes before takeoff. He says the delay, for which he was not responsible, "meant my status was changed to 'late for flight,' which is apparently a very low status. Passengers with tickets on a 'free seat basis' kept boarding even after the formal takeoff time, but those in charge wouldn't even talk to me, all they said was 'you're late.'"

After the flight took off, D.K waited for another two hours, hoping to find a helpful El Al representative. "While waiting, I watched the company's representatives take care of passengers who volunteered to take a later flight [probably due to overbooking, Z.B.], providing them with flight alternatives, as well as hotel and food vouchers.

"Eventually, they told me that the only assistance I could expect from them was that they would book me for the next flight, scheduled to take off the following day, on a free-seat basis - I was not guaranteed a seat and was not provided with a hotel or food vouchers." There was no seat available for D.K. the next day either. Eventually he was offered an alternate route, via Madrid, and he arrived in Israel 24 hours after his initially scheduled landing.

Yet, D.K's anger is not aimed at the right target. The responsible company is the one that caused the delay, not the one that operates the connecting flight. Ronit Ben Zaken, El Al's Customer Service Representative, explained to D.K.: "As is the case for other airlines, El Al functions as a go-between for other airlines for everything regarding 'El Al Contact' tickets [ticket packages that include a flight by another airline, Z.B.]. This ticket offers the customer a relatively cheap package, but responsibility for the operation of the flight, the service and any delays lies with the foreign airline. The delayed airline is the one that has to provide sleeping arrangements and food. It also has to transfer passengers to their connecting flights, even when the concerned airline operates only regional flights."

Ben Zaken also reports that "El Al's check-in counters close an hour before takeoff for economy class passengers and 45 minutes before takeoff for business class passengers."

According to Friedman, "The time to arrive for a flight is not regulated by law. It is set in binding agreements between airlines and passengers."

However, it is highly doubtful that consumers are sufficiently aware of the rules regarding this matter, and in particular of the regulations regarding the consequences of being late. This ignorance often causes passengers to be late for check-in, which allows the airline to prevent them from boarding.

"The importance and consequence of such a fundamental clause should obligate the airlines to stress it and emphasize it in their agreements with the consumer," says Friedman. "In addition, consumers must be informed in advance that failure to show up on time may prevent them from boarding their booked flight. This is all the more necessary when the rule is obscured by a long agreement that is unlikely to be thoroughly read and taken seriously enough by all consumers.

"When the tickets are purchased through travel agents, they are also obligated to inform the consumer of all the deal's essential particulars. They are required to inform their customers of the consequences of being late just as they are required to inform them of when they need a visa."

The policies of European airlines regarding late passengers are grounded in law, not just in airline-customer agreements. Yael Katan, the manager of British Airways in Israel, says that according to the law, when a passenger is late for a flight for reasons unrelated to the airline, the airline is not obligated to assist. Nevertheless, she says that "British Airways always tries to assist the customer to the best of our ability in finding an alternative flight, as long as there are available seats."

Katan says that when a passenger is delayed because of an airline's fault and is therefore unable to board a connecting flight, the delayed airline is responsible "for providing the customer with an alternative flight, with the same specifications as in the purchased tickets. All this applies even if the connecting flight is operated by another airline."

Avner Gordon, the manager of Swiss Airlines in Israel, admits that the company is "very strict" in its policy regarding late arrivals and takeoff time. "A flight is closed 45 minutes before takeoff. We are not flexible since even five minutes may later cause a delay of an hour and disrupt the connecting flights' schedule - air traffic in Europe is busy." For this reason, "late passengers are not allowed to board - clear and simple." Gordon says that a late passenger is sent to the company's offices at Ben-Gurion International Airport to be issued a new ticket.

According to Ofer Kish, the director of Lufthansa in Israel, "Lufthansa's check-in counters at Ben-Gurion Airport close 45 minutes before takeoff. Obviously the check-in crews will not finish their duty if there are passengers undergoing security questioning on their way to the counters. A passenger who arrives at the counters after closing will not be admitted to the flight and will have to change his ticket at one of the airport's ticketing counters. If the ticket is not immediately processed the passenger will be declared a 'no-show' and the reservation will be canceled."

Things are no different with North American Airlines. According to Ruth Ben Zur, the manager of Air Canada in Israel, "on special occasions, late passengers will still be admitted to the flight, as long as they reached the Air Canada check-in counter 45 minutes before the scheduled takeoff. Security checks are not part of the airline's responsibility - therefore one must allow enough time to pass through them.

"Since Air Canada offers its customers an online check-in service at the company's Web site, passengers can save the time they normally spend standing in line at the company's check-in counters and only need to go through the security check. The check-in process can be performed up to 24 hours before takeoff from one's home or office, allowing for maximum comfort and flexibility, instead of wasting valuable time waiting at the airport."