El Al upgrading planes, appeasing haredim

El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin Photo: Sivan Faraj

El Al's Boeing 777 planes are undergoing thorough renovation, while the airline is making extraordinary efforts to mend its fences with the orthodox Jewish community in Israel and abroad.

El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. (TASE: ELAL) will invest $2.5 million in renovating its planes. The Boeing 777 fleet will be thoroughly upgraded, with more seats, but no first class section. The entertainment systems on the planes will be replaced, and WiFi systems and USB outlets will be installed. This project, according to El Al's financial reports, will be completed by 2021. On El Al's short-haul Boeing 737 aircraft, the seats will be replaced with thinner ones "enabling the airline to reduce the cost per seat."

El Al has taken delivery of nine of the sixteen Boeing Dreamliner aircraft that it ordered. By the end of this year, fourteen of the aircraft are due to be in service with the airline, bringing its total fleet to 43 aircraft. The renovation of the existing fleet is necessary in order to improve the customer experience and to make the 737 aircraft more efficient. The renovation of the 737s is due to take place during this summer.

Highly important customers

El Al is also making efforts to appease the haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) community, which perhaps may not have completely forgiven the airline for the "Shabbat flight" incident, in which passengers were not allowed to disembark before departure from a delayed flight to Israel from New York to Tel Aviv on a Friday, and were instead landed in Athens to avoid desecration of the holy day (which starts on Friday evening) by completing the journey to Tel Aviv, amid reports, which were later claimed to be false, that haredi passengers had been unruly.

In an article published on the jewishtraveler.co.il website last Wednesday, the reporter, Yaakov Meir, writes that "El Al is more attuned to the religious public than in the past."

Last week, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin hosted 25 members of the "Hul Mehudar" WhatsApp group of Jewish religious tourism industry executives from Israel and around the world. In the course of the meeting, which included a tour of some of the planes being renovated, Usishkin said, commenting on the "Shabbat flight", "I have no problem is saying 'Sorry, we made a mistake' -because what happened did not come from malice but from good faith."

After the stir raised by the "Shabbat flight", El Al set up a committee of inquiry, whose findings have not been published. El Al VP Client Service Amir Rogovsky said at the meeting, however, that he had attended the courts of many Hassidic leaders, and held meeting with important rabbis in order to understand the haredi community better.

Rogovsky went into detail on the efforts El Al had made in the case of the flight in question to aid the religious Jewish passengers. He said that El Al had put the passengers up at a hotel in Athens at its own expense, organized kosher food for them from the local Habad House, to which it also made a donation of $18,000. "El Al is the only airline that is strict about kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). The kashrut for Passover costs us a great deal of money," Rogovsky is quoted in the article as saying.

Haredi passengers make up a considerable proportion of El Al's customers, particularly on the London and New York routes. El Al cannot afford a quarrel with the haredi community, and after the "Shabbat flight" it realized that it had to do everything it could to appease that community, even if it cost a handsome donation to a Habad House.

It could be that had El Al dealt better with the "Shabbat flight" saga, with maximum transparency and a consistent version of events all along the way from the moment the story broke (did haredim on the flight riot or not?) up to the establishment of a committee of inquiry (the findings of which, as mentioned, have remained confidential), it would not have to send its client service manager to so many meetings "to understand the haredi community better", and the whole story would long ago have been behind it.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on April 7, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

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El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin Photo: Sivan Faraj
El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin Photo: Sivan Faraj
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