El Al to Compensate Passengers After Shabbat Flight Debacle

Airlines to make up for 'inconvenience' to travelers on the New York-Tel Aviv flight rerouted to Athens, so that religious passengers would not desecrate the Sabbath

El Al Airlines will compensate all 400 passengers on its November 16 flight 002 from New York to Tel Aviv, which was rerouted due to delays to Athens, in order to avoid desecrating the Sabbath.

The passengers will get free round-trip tickets to Europe as compensation for the “inconvenience” caused them, the company reported on Monday. The exact terms pertaining to use of these tickets have yet to be clarified.

The flight earlier this month was beset by a series of delays. If, despite them, the pilots had continued on to their planned destination in Tel Aviv, the plane would have landed after Shabbat started. They opted to land instead in Athens, where all the passengers were asked to disembark.

The El Al plane then continued on to Israel, with luggage but no non-crew members on board, and two smaller Israir jets were sent to pick up the non-observant passengers in Athens and fly them to Tel Aviv. The rest of the passengers were flown to Tel Aviv only after Shabbat. Thus all of the passengers were inconvenienced to some degree.

The airline stressed again on Monday that it was not casting blame on anybody – observant or otherwise – for what happened. “El Al does not make distinctions between its customers by community, gender or nationality,” it stated.

El Al is the only airline in the world that grounds its planes for 24 hours a week, on the Sabbath.

Meanwhile, following the debacle, the ultra-Orthodox community has been threatening to boycott the national carrier. Among those issuing the boycott threat was a passenger on the November 16 flight, Sholom Ber Sorotzkin, head of the Ateret Shlomo Yeshiva. In a letter, he gave the company until Sunday night to issue a formal apology and to find a way to make amends to the greater community of Sabbath-observers.

On Monday morning Sorotzkin, an El Al frequent flier, flew to New York – on an El Al plane.

In light of the uproar that has ensued, it's apparent that El Al regrets the decision to allow the plane to Tel Aviv to depart, after delays on the ground in New York. The alternative would have been to delay the flight until after the Sabbath and to accommodate all the passengers in hotels.

In late 2006 the airline was boycotted by the ultra-Orthodox community, which cost the company about a million shekels a day, according to industry observers.

El Al can ill afford to alienate this community, or any other potential passengers. Just last month the company signed a new employment agreement with its air crews, jacking up annual wage costs to about 635 million shekels (about $170.3 million) a year, an increase of 82 million shekels compared with 2018. This comes at a time when the airlines' share of passenger traffic has been diminishing, despite the uptick in tourism to Israel and Israeli travel abroad.

Moreover, El Al is now heavily leveraged after purchasing seven Dreamliner jets at a cost of $1.2 billion, in addition to paying leasing fees totaling $922 million for nine Dreamliners.

Estimates are that the ultra-Orthodox community constitutes 20 percent of all passengers on the Tel Aviv-New York line, El Al's most profitable, and the carrier can ill afford to lose such a substantial a chunk of its customers.

The rub is that to get returns on its massive investment, El Al would have to operate its planes all the time – which is how low-cost companies operate. By comparison, EasyJet planes aren’t supposed to have more than 25 minutes' turnaround time on the ground.

It bears mention the ultra-Orthodox have ignored the fact that El Al’s subsidiary, Sun D’or, flies on Shabbat.

In his letter to the company, Sorotzkin had written that if his conditions were not met, he and the entire ultra-Orthodox community would be forced to change their allegiance to an airline that “does not come between a man and his devotion, does not ridicule the value and the holiness of the nation of God, its institutions or its principles.”

An El Al Jumbo Jet
Yohai Mosi