From Baseball to Business, El Al Strike Upends Travel Plans

Support for the El Al strike seems hard to come by - especially among those fearing a cold, long wait, stranded at an airport somewhere.

Roxanne Halper was all ready to show up with celebratory balloons at Ben-Gurion Airport early Monday morning to greet her 15-year-old son Yoav, a member of the Israel Youth National Baseball team, scheduled to return triumphantly from the Pony League tournament in Prague, after doing unexpectedly well in the competition, reaching the finals against Germany.

But the El Al strike put a damper on the celebration for Halper, who lives on Kibbutz Gezer, as well the other parents of the teenagers on the team, who spent the day worried that their kids wouldn’t make it home.

“We are very excited about them doing so well, but very nervous about the strike and frustrated right now knowing that we might not get to hug our players,” she said.

The team has been very successful over the past several years when it has come to recruiting new players, improving their moves on the field and winning games. They seem to be less successful managing to get home from tournaments as scheduled.

It’s not the first time the team has been stuck overseas. The coach, Yaron Erel, reassured worried parents by reminding them that he had experience in being stranded in Europe with his players. Three years ago in 2010, he was in a similar situation, when the volcanic ash cloud over Europe paralyzed airports, and the team had to travel for 18 hours in the cold to get beyond the ash cloud to Rome, where they could catch a flight to Israel.

“If we survived that, we can make it through an El Al strike,” Erel said. He told Ha’aretz that he was hoping to get most of the younger players on the under-14 team home by Monday on a Czech airlines flight, but that he would remain behind with some of the older teenagers from the under-16 team.

On the other side of the world, another group of parents, who had children at the Hannah Senesh Community School in Brooklyn, also spent Sunday in uncertainty. Their kids were at the end of a two-week spring break tour of Israel and had been scheduled to return home on Sunday night on an El Al flight. They also had no idea whether alternative flights would be found for their kids or if they would be indefinitely delayed in Israel.

“The last I heard, our school representatives were still trying to put the kids on the plane and that the kids are at the airport,” said Elena Popova, whose son Daniel is with the Hannah Senesh group. “My understanding is that if the kids can't be put on a plane they will not be left at the airport to wait. We miss them here after not having them with us for 2 long weeks. Still, I am sure, the kids are happy to have some unexpected extra time in Israel.”

Another Hannah Senesh parent, who asked not to be named, said she was less sanguine, after being informed that that El Al wouldn't refund the cost of the children's tickets, which would have allowed their travel agency to rebook them on another airline. This information runs contradictory to statements by the company that they would refund all tickets.

In Manchester, England, Robert Levy a partner in the Kuits law firm, feared the collapse of a carefully planned series of business meetings over two days in Israel that had taken more than three months to put together.

He is scheduled to leave on an El Al flight on Monday afternoon and begin his marathon of meetings on Tuesday morning.

“I’m on a really tight schedule. We are looking to develop business links in Israel, and I’m supposed to meet with Israeli banks, lawyers, financial advisors. To reschedule will be a real headache. Technically, El Al has not actually cancelled tomorrow’s flight, they seem to be cancelling them in waves. I’m not taking any chances - I bought a backup ticket on Easy Jet. After that, I will have to figure out how to get to my next destination, Switzerland on Thursday for which I’m also booked on El Al. On that one I’ll have to wait and see.”

Despite the stress, he feels lucky that he is watching and waiting from home. “I feel sorry for all the people in transit who are stranded.”

He said that the situation doesn’t completely put a damper on his enthusiasm to do business in Israel, but it certainly gives him pause. “After all, we are meant to be working create business links. Travel is crucial to business links, and business travel simply has to be reliable.”

If television and social media is any indication, the strike wasn’t winning El Al any public sympathy for their cause of fighting the “open skies” agreement. Pictures filled television screens of miserable travellers camped out and napping on chairs in the airport waiting for alternate flights, and stunned tourists who had heard nothing about the strike, and had checked out of their hotels and showed up at the airport.

On Twitter, those whose plans were upended by the strike vented their frustration, with some El Al frequent flyers declaring they were switching their loyalties.
Finding a Tweet in support of the strike was impossible. Angry tweets criticizing the company - and not only from frustrated travellers - were plentiful: “I think that #ELAL strike will end like this: CEO will have to resign, company will have to reduce fares or go bankrupt, we will fly cheaper,” and another, “more & more apparent that ELAL does not have public support - open the skies - bring on the competition!”

Ofer Vaknin