Back in the late 1970s, El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. (TASE: ELAL), once a government company and now Israel's largest publicly traded airline, invented a way of having its cake and eating it too - the ability to operate its aircraft on Saturdays with its pilots, flight attendants, and services, while declaring that it was a kosher airline that kept the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.
The criticism in Europe over the fact that El Al's charter subsidiary Sun D'Or International Airlines did not comply with the criteria of a fully independent airline, resulted in its license being revoked. This once again, for the umpteenth time, but more sharply than ever, raises the possibility that El Al will break the longstanding taboo, and fly on Saturdays.
"2011 won't be an easy year for El Al in any case, because of rising competition. The option of completely grounding its fleet on Saturday is simply out of the question," a source in the aviation industry told "Globes" on Friday.
"It's not just on Saturday, there are also holidays and time differences that complicate the issue. It mustn’t be the Sabbath at the takeoff location or Sabbath at the destination. We haven’t even begun to talk about what this does to crew overnight costs abroad on Saturday, and a great many other aspects. It's an incredible headache for an airline. No airline should have to deal with grounding its fleet for 20% of the time."
Another top source said, "The religious are adamant on this point. They've been on this tree for a long time, and they have no intention of climbing down."
In the absence of legal restrictions, El Al refrains from flying on Saturday out of fear of a harsh reaction by the religious community.
Yair, a religious passenger who is a member of El Al's frequent fliers club, is one of many passengers who, he says, wrote to El Al last week to tell it that they will stop flying the airline if it desecrates the Sabbath. "I prefer a goy pilot who eats pork in shrimp sauce than a Jew who desecrates the Sabbath. This is a matter of principle," he says. "This plane of a foreign airline will fly on Saturday regardless. As a Jew, there's nothing I can do about that - but for a plane bearing the Israeli flag to fly on Saturday with a Jewish pilot, who knowingly and deliberately desecrates the Sabbath and also causes several hundred other people to do so, with a Shield of David on the tail? This is something that everyone who holds the Sabbath dear must fight against."
"Globes": So you'll fly abroad with a German or American airline, jeopardizing the jobs of Jews, because of a decision to fly on Saturday?
Yair: "If I have to, yes. There's a limit. No German or American airline flies with the Shield of David or markets itself as the airline of Israel. Do you know what El Al's slogan is overseas? 'This isn't an airline, it's Israel'. That's what they're selling. So I should lend a hand to the Israel that they're marketing abroad becoming an Israel of mass Sabbath desecration?"
The prevailing assumption at El Al, and among various sources in the aviation industry, is that, despite everything, El Al will avoid flying on Saturday as much as possible - and forego a large chunk of revenue, to avoid damaging its unique brand.
Solutions under review by El Al include leasing its planes to other airlines, and establishing a new and more "established" subsidiary with independent pilots and air crew (a plan that could be problematic in view of the understandable objections by El Al's workers committee against sacrificing its members for the sake of the subsidiary).
Leading travel agencies declined to say last week whether the pending closure of Sun D'Or would reduce competition in the charter market and cause prices to rise. The agencies preferred to focus their efforts on dealing with angry Sun D'Or passengers whose April reservations might not be honored. Travel agents have been calming customers and saying that it's business as usual.
As for prices, the agents say that they will stay low. "There's little room to fall. Airlines are offering $99 tickets to Europe, and that will continue. Sun D'Or is an important player, but not the only one. A lot of European charter airlines fly here, and both they and Israeli airlines are waiting to pick up Sun D'Or passengers if it is grounded," an agent told "Globes".
What about the possibility that El Al will fly on Saturday?
"At every foreign airline that would be the preferred solution. But it's hard for me to believe that it will happen here. I have no doubt that we're talking about a solution that would enable El Al to offer more flights at better times, and give customers greater flexibility in planning their trips. It would also help El Al move forward a little on international alliances with airlines, but it's hard to see El Al doing that. One of my colleagues told me by phone this week, 'They will never fly on Saturday. The haredim (ultra-orthodox) would stand at the takeoff line and throw diapers at them."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on March 28, 2011
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