El Al's Latest Delay: Discovering #MeToo

Tamar Kaplansky
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Passenger boarding stairs seen at Ben Gurion Airport ahead of a ceremony to welcome El Al's new Boeing 787 Dreamliner airliner, in 2019.
Tamar Kaplansky

During an Israir Airlines flight from Tel Aviv to Varna, Bulgaria in 2015, an Israeli passenger started an argument with a flight attendant over duty-free chocolate she wanted to purchase. It quickly escalated into wild shouting and cursing, including the by now immortal remark made by the passanger's enraged sister, who set in the next row: “Sell her the chocolate, you piece of trash! What is she, an Arab?”

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A video of the incident, which became known in Israel as the “Chocolate Flight”, quickly went viral. It racked up millions of views, spawned an entry in Hebrew Wikipedia, was lampooned on the Israeli equivalent of SNL, and is often invoked to explain internet shaming or, conversely, in references to “the ugly Israeli.”

Airlines take passenger violence seriously and have clear protocols for handling it. El Al is no different. If a passenger uses foul language, for example, or smokes, runs riot, ignores cabin crew requests, assaults another passenger or a crew member or even refuses to leave the toilet, the procedure for handling unruly/disruptive passengers is followed, including standard operating procedures for the captain and crew.

These can include isolating the passenger, using restraints, questioning any passenger witnesses, summoning police to meet the plane, banning the passenger and even alerting other airlines to the passenger’s behavior. A flight can even be diverted, as in the case of a Toronto-Tel Aviv flight in 2017 that made an emergency landing at London’s Heathrow Airport after a passenger choked random passengers.

As stated at a 2017 conference on the subject, managing violent passengers is extremely important. It’s a matter of flight safety, but also of a commitment to the welfare of the crew and of course the passengers.

But when it comes to the welfare of female passengers it’s apparently less urgent. El Al has had a protocol for managing passenger violence for 20 years, but only recently was it updated to include sexual harassment, along with a chapter on how the crew should respond to a passenger complaint.

The change came only after attorney Roni Aloni-Sadovnik sued the airline on behalf of a female passenger who was harassed by a male passenger during a flight. The court transcript shows that although the flight manager logged “a complex and instance of a passenger who was sexually harassed” in the flight report, neither she nor any other crew member saw fit to follow the procedure for handling an unruly passenger.

One would think that by 2018, when the suit was heard, it would have been obvious that sexual harassment is violence, serious violence, but in the air this was still sensational news, at least when it comes to female passengers. Although the passenger lost the suit, something good still came of it: El Al announced it has changed the procedure, “because it is well aware both of the public mood and social needs, including the #MeToo revolution of the past year.” What can we say. Nice. Sometimes we must be thankful even for the obvious.

But one thing still grates: The change was actually made in December 2019. Why did we hear of it only now? It’s because it was only after another legal battle, over a different suit by a different passenger who was harassed on a different flight, that El Al deigned to announce the update – and that, only on the order of a (female) judge. In other words, #MeToo and awareness of the public mood are fine, but there’s no need to go overboard with disclosures.

Few Israelis are flying these days, but it’s still infuriating. Instead of concealing the update, presumably for considerations of legal liability, El Al should have announced the welcome change.

Like U.S. airlines Southwest and Alaska, which have added to their preflight safety instructions a request to report “unwelcome behavior,” our national carrier should have told us, without a court order, about its efforts to turn the crowded seats in the cabin into a safe space for women, where no one will rub himself against you in the aisle or grope you “by mistake” while fiddling with his tray. So we’ll know what it means when it calls itself “your home away from home.”

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