El Al's new CEO struggles with negative headlines

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

Flight delays and cancellations are destroying El Al's reputation while stewards continue to ask women to move to accommodate ultra-Orthodox-men who won't sit next to them.

The 100 days of grace for new El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. (TASE: ELAL) CEO Gonen Usishkin are coming to an end and the company has recently been feature in unflattering headlines.

El Al flights were disrupted on Friday. This was not a minor delay, which can happen to any airline; there were disruptions that cause anguish and ruin vacation plans. For example, passengers planning a weekend in Lisbon following a 5:00 PM flight on Thursday with flight no. 5161 (Sun d'Or, an El Al subsidiary) suffered a 12-hour delay, meaning that their flight was delayed until Friday morning. There were also long delays on flights to Kiev and Barcelona.

Passengers on El Al flight no. 313 to Luton Airport in London on Thursday suffered a worse fate; their flight was canceled. Keep in mind also that passengers flying to Israel on flights scheduled for those airplanes were also placed on later flights. Due to what El Al calls "operational circumstances," five flights on the route to Toronto and flights to Hong Kong and Beijing were recently canceled, with more likely to come.

What lies behind this mysterious reason? Is El Al hinting that the pilots with which it has recently been negotiating are to blame for the situation?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to go back to the major questions marks that have accompanied El Al's policy over the years. El Al's flight schedule sold to passengers in Israel and worldwide is not fully manned. Actually, at least a third of it is not manned until the last minute. Even a coffee house shift does not do this. El Al relies on a telephone call-up of pilots (to whom it pays extra for doing so) who have become accustomed to getting such calls a day or two before the flight.

This method usually works, but not always. Pilots complain that it is difficult to live a normal life this way. Not only do they miss their children's end-of-school-year parties for kindergarten; an entire crew can get stuck in Boston for five days because of canceled flights. It is not only pilots; the stewards appearing for the flights are stuck at the airport until the flight takes off, until it becomes necessary to send them home and find replacements for them.

To this chaos has been added a post last Friday by an El Al passenger name Chen Rotem. The post, which has drawn tens of thousands of hits, 4,000 shares, and a series of very emphatic responses, describes what happened on El Al Flight no. 002 from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to Tel Aviv. Rotem described how before the takeoff, four haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men on the flight refused to sit next to women. Rotem wrote that one of them, "especially ascetic and pious, boarded the plane with tightly closed eyes guided by his friend and remained that way during the entire flight." A commotion ensued and the El Al crew tried to solve the problem.

"The haredim were unwilling to talk with or look at the stewardesses. Instead of getting ready for takeoff and service the passengers, the entire male crew with the exception of the captain were engaged exclusively with this problem. The haredim didn't budge an inch. One of the crew threatened, "If you don't sit down, you can get off the plane now," Rotem wrote.

"Finally," he added, "after prolonged negotiations, the crew gave in and a long diplomatic process began of moving passengers from their seats in order to free places for the four haredim. Notable was the fact that other skullcap-wearing passengers (members of the Chabad Hassidic sect, other wearers of black skullcaps (an indication that the wearer is haredi), wearers of knitted skullcaps, and Reform Jews from the US) expressed astonishment and disgust at the four haredim's behavior. Finally, after a lot of maneuvering and shouting, two women (one a 70 year-old American and the other a young Israeli) agreed under pressure of time to move and the crisis was solved. The crew, which had been moving around in the isles for more than an hour, already looked exhausted before the takeoff although it can be assumed that they were already used to such scenes.

"Just to make sure you know - the women were not put in better seats; they were merely moved to other tourist class seats. That, of course, is irrelevant to the principle involved. Is there some official policy in such matters?", Rotem wonders in his post, "and if so, what is it? Can every passenger demand that other passengers be moved from their seats for their personal comfort and according to their personal belief?"

Another question of principle should be added to the ones Rotem asked: would this situation be accepted by a foreign airline? It is hard to believe that a foreign airline would be willing to suffer fines for a delay (charged by the airport) in a similar situation.

In one sense, of course, El Al is in an embarrassing position. Religious and haredi passengers are important to it. Boycotts are not something that the airline wants to experience. El Al does not fly on the Sabbath because of its religious passengers (some of whom do fly on competing airlines) and suffers heaving losses as a result because airplanes are left on the ground - a financial loss that all airlines, including El Al, seek to avoid. "Globes" last week published a letter that Usishkin sent to El Al's employees telling them that the airline's situation demanded cost cutting.

The summer season is just now beginning and getting off on the wrong foot is bad news. The committee of El Al's pilots has been in intensive talks with the company's management through mediator Adv. Amos Gabrieli. Sources inform "Globes" that the progress in the talks is one step forward and two steps backward. The talks involve both the loopholes left in the agreement signed by the pilots' committee with former El Al CEO David Maimon, who experienced one of the biggest crises in El Al's relations with the pilots, and the flight time limit (FTL) regulations that will become effective in October, which state what flying times are allowed and the permitted pilot crew composition according to the length of the flight. In other words, the pilots' salary structure has to be stated in advance. The current practice of leaving flights unmanned until the last minute must end.

Has El Al become the airline that Israelis love to hate? The emotions in the talkbacks to the above-mentioned post and to the recent news featuring El Al show the attitude of passengers to it, including those who stated in a talkback that they long ago abandoned the airline bearing the country's flag as its logo.

El Al employees also describe an unpleasant atmosphere. The disruptions harm the passengers above all, but El Al employees at all levels are also exposed to damage, even if only to their image. Who benefits from all this? The foreign airlines, which continue to gain ground at the Israeli airlines' expense.

El Al finished last May with a 27% share of passengers at Ben Gurion Airport, compared with 30% in May 2017. Turkish Airlines, Wizz Air, and easyJet were the major beneficiaries from passenger traffic, which grew 14%, compared with May 2017.

If El Al's leaders want to gain the trust of passengers, they had better act quickly. To destroy trust with a canceled flight or a five-hour delay with no warning or apology is much easier than to restore such trust.

The slogan "The homiest in the world" sounds cynical under the current circumstances. This is a final call to the company's managers - the flight to a summer vacation is about to take off.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on June 24, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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