El Al to Probe Controversial Flight Diverted to Accommodate Religious Passengers

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FILE PHOTO: An El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 737-900ER airplane, August 8, 2018.
FILE PHOTO: An El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 737-900ER airplane, August 8, 2018.Credit: REUTERS/Paul Hanna

El Al Israel Airlines said on Monday it would set up a committee to examine the circumstances that led a New York to Tel Aviv flight to stop in Athens to allow religiously observant passengers to disembark and avoid desecrating Shabbat.

Israel’s national carrier has come under severe criticism since the incident, which occurred last Friday and stirred up a storm of social media posts.

The airline's CEO Gonen Usishkin, who announced the plan to set up the committee in a letter to employees, said the airline would also be looking into allegations that some passengers acted violently toward the flight crew.

>> Controversy erupts over El Al flight diverted to Athens to accommodate Sabbath-observant passengers

“We find ourselves not at our best - the polarizing discourse and the exchange of accusations,” he said. “This is contrary to our principles and values as citizens of the state and as the national carrier flying the flag of Israel.”

Flight 002, which had been scheduled to leave John F. Kennedy International Airport at 6:30 P.M. last Thursday, took off more than five hours late due to bad weather. Dozens of passengers demanded to be allowed to disembark in New York out of concern that they would find themselves flying after Shabbat began.

Passengers were told to take their seats so the plane could return to the gate, but instead the plane took off.

What happened after that has been disputed over social media posts. Some accuse the religious passengers of being physically and verbally abusive during the flight. Others say flight attendants withheld information and service to religious passengers, and did not tell them until much later that the plane would land in Athens to let them off.

Usishkin said that throughout the flight, El Al management was working to ensure that passengers who wanted to would get to Israel as quickly as possible while ensuring that Sabbath observers would not find themselves flying after sundown.

“Other foreign flights that were supposed to fly to Israel close to the time of the El Al flight cancelled due to bad weather. We could have cancelled as well, but we chose to make an effort to get into the air in the interest of our passengers and to bring them back home as soon as possible,” Usishkin said. “No other consideration influenced us.”

El Al, which had earlier apologized for the inconvenience caused passengers, is estimated to have spent 1 million shekels ($270,000) to make the Athens stop. The airline, which as a policy doesn’t fly on the Jewish Sabbath or major holidays, has acted similarly in the past year to avoid desecrating the Sabbath.

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