The Bottom Line / So What's New?

1. Open skies. In the early 1980s, Yitzhak Gadish's star shone. He dared to wage a frontal war against El Al by offering the public cheap flights to Europe via his company, Maof. Suddenly, it turned out that you didn't have to break your bank account to travel overseas.

El Al was quick to employ the heavy guns against him: It activated the Transportation Ministry, which greatly restricted charter flights, and even operated flights at a loss, until it succeeded in driving Maof out of the market. Gadish's heart was broken. They had destroyed his life's work. But like every pioneer, he paved the way for others: He was the first Israeli charter flight operator.

Since then, 20 years have passed, and nothing has changed. Even though El Al is a private company today, just like Arkia and Israir, the Transportation Ministry continues to protect it as if that were its only job. The United States (20 years ago already, under Ronald Reagan), and recently Europe as well, adopted an open skies policy, which led to a sharp reduction in prices. But here, Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit has adopted his ministry's outdated policy, and continues to oppose competition. And therefore, the hotels are begging for customers, the restaurants are pleading, the taxis are waiting - but Sheetrit still will not allow foreign airlines to fly here when they wish, as they wish, and at whatever price they wish.

So when will we, the citizens, rise up to demonstrate against such civic evils? After all, it is not only the disengagement that determines our quality of life.

2. The fuel surcharge. The period of aviation surcharges began after September 11, 2001, when the world was still reeling from the grim scenes of destruction of the Twin Towers. The international airline cartel announced imposition of a security surcharge, which continues to exist in Israel to this day, with no connection to actual security outlays.

And the regular airlines saw that it was good, so they improved the system. A year and a half ago, they invented the fuel surcharge. They want us to think that this surcharge is something external, unrelated to them. At first, they called it a "fuel tax" and even tried not to pay travel agents their usual cut of this sum - an attempt that failed.

The surcharge is entirely a marketing gimmick. Instead of factoring the increase in fuel prices into the price of the ticket, as they would if any other production input, such as wages, became more expensive, the airlines left it out. Therefore, the naive customer thinks he is paying $500 for a ticket to Europe plus another $60 for the "fuel surcharge," which is collected by El Al and then transferred to who knows where - maybe the government. But he is wrong. It all goes into the same pocket. And why doesn't Meir Sheetrit correct this distortion?

3. Cell phone bills. The current fad is to take a cell phone overseas and gab away without a care - until the bill arrives at the door. Then, the smiles turn to tears.

People are fooled by the dramatic reduction that has occurred in the price of regular overseas phone calls. But the price of a cell phone call from overseas remains exorbitant - something like NIS 8-10 per minute - whereas a call made with a calling card from a public phone would cost only NIS 1-2 per minute.

In order to confuse the public so that it will not understand how it is being abused, Cellcom and Partner list their rates in pounds sterling, to make them look low. Many people fail to notice the fine print warning that the prices are in pounds. They see 1.2 per minute and think of shekels. But it isn't shekels, dollars or euros, but pounds - the currency most expensive in shekel terms.

Pelephone lists its rates in dollars, which is less outrageous. But why can't all the companies list their rates in shekels? After all, we still live here, in Israel.