Ordered a Charter Flight? Don't Count on It Taking Off

Yoel Barel, a businessman from a moshav in the Sharon region, and three of his friends wanted to attend the World Cup quarter-finals in Berlin, Germany tomorrow. Israir Airlines' schedule showed flights leaving Israel tomorrow morning and returning on Saturday. Perfect, or as Barel put it, "No missed work day, the wife won't have any complaints - it's a weekend and she'll be without her husband for only one night."

After interminable surfing on the Internet, Barel and his buddies obtained four tickets to the game in a good section of the stadium for $650 apiece - four times their face value.

"Of course we immediately booked flights with Israir, whose reservation clerk was pleasant and promised everything would be fine," says Barel.

Last week, however, the plans for the perfect weekend began to unravel.

"About 10 days before the trip an Israir representative phoned to say that the return flight had been canceled," says Barel. "From the clerk's voice, you could tell this was nothing out of the ordinary. The flight was simply canceled. That's all. 'What about us?' I asked him. 'How will we get home?' 'No problem,' he replied. 'Come back on the flight three days later.' 'And if that isn't convenient for us?' I asked, astounded. 'Then you have a problem,' came the terse reply. 'There are no other flights. What's the problem, just stay for a few more days.'"

Travelers should know

The troublesome phenomenon of canceled charter flights is not exclusive to Israir. Yossi Fatael, director general of the Israel Tourist and Travel Agents Association, says charter flights to and from Israel have an estimated cancelation rate of 10 percent. The main problem is that unlike flights with regular airlines, which have fixed schedules, charter airlines reserve the right to cancel a flight up to 10 days before the departure, and passengers have no way to protect themselves.

"The problem of charter flight cancelations is well known," says Fatael. "An airline must notify passengers when they make their reservations that their flight could be changed or canceled. There should be full transparency. If this is so, there is no problem. Charter passengers know they are buying low-priced tickets and that the possibility of flight cancellation is one of the conditions."

Finding alternative arrangements

As the summer travel season heats up, this phenomenon is expected to worsen, as tourism wholesalers try to organize as many groups as possible and publish multiple departure dates for various tours.

If 10 days before the departure, an insufficient number of seats has been booked, that flight will be canceled. In such cases travel agencies try to combine groups of travelers from different dates to fill a single charter flight.

Back to Barel and his buddies. Since they could not sell their game tickets (their names were printed on them), and since they could not afford to stay another three days in Berlin, they called Israir again. This time the company suggested they stay just one extra day in Berlin, and then fly home from Prague.

"'From where?' I asked," relates Barel. "'From Prague. You know, in the Czech Republic,' said the clerk. 'And how are we supposed to get to Prague?' I asked. 'Just a minute.' The clerk had not been expecting that kind of question. After a couple of minutes the clerk returned with the simple statement, 'If you can't get to Prague, there is a flight from Berlin three days later.'"

At this point Barel lost his patience and asked to speak to the reservations manager, who was somewhat more sympathetic. After a further search for alternative flights, she proposed departing from Munich, albeit 1,000 kilometers from Berlin, but at least still in Germany.

"How will we get to Munich?" asked Barel.

"Maybe you could rent a car," she responded.

"Then I asked if we were the only ones in this predicament," relates Barel. "'Not at all,' replied the clerk. 'A lot of tickets were sold for that flight. You're the only ones with a problem. Everyone else will fly back from Munich, or from Berlin, three days later.'"

With no other option, the four men canceled their reservation for their return flight, and continued to seek an alternative elsewhere.

"The July 1 flight from Berlin was canceled for technical reasons," an Israir representative informed TheMarker. "The passengers were notified three weeks in advance and were transferred to a flight departing 22 hours earlier, on June 30. Charter flights can be canceled up to 10 days in advance."