Nothing went right for El Al on Thursday.
Their crew was several hours late to the airport for flight #002.
The flight was operated by aircraft 4X-ELB, the same 747 that declared a mayday and had an emergency landing in Goose Bay earlier this year. You can listen to the ATC audio of that mayday here.
After boarding the plane 2 hours late and then waiting on the tarmac for 3 hours, the captain told passengers demanding to get off that they would return to the gate for those who wanted to deplane to do so. Then the plane proceeded to take off after everyone sat down, despite knowing that they would not be able to make it to Israel before Shabbos, which would require a diversion.
The pilot flamed onboard tensions by blaming the diversion on religious passengers, but in fact El Al’s own company policy required the diversion as they can’t bring passengers to Israel on Shabbos.
Flight #008 also departed too late from JFK to make it to Tel Aviv and was supposed to divert to Rome, however it flew to Israel on Shabbos due to a medical situation.
The Jerusalem Post notes that El Al claimed that “a group of haredim” requested to get off the plane and “exercised heavy and violent pressure against the cabin crew” in seeking to disembark, and alleged that this caused further delays in taking off.
This is a farce. El Al got them to sit down by lying to them about returning them to the terminal and then taking off shortly afterward.
El Al said they would press chargers against the violent offenders, but they have yet to file a complaint against anyone. That’s not surprising given that hundreds of other passengers say that there was zero violence on the flight.
Reporters onboard confirmed that there was no violence, but El Al was spouting lie after lie.
So what’s the story El Al? If this violence actually happened, then where is the police report for violence? Why would you let the offenders off the plane without going to the police? Why would you fly the offender home to Tel Aviv the next night?
I’d posit that El Al went with this story as it shifted the story away from their inexcusable behavior.
And it worked. Everyone from bloggers with headlines screaming El Al Flight Diverts Over Shabbat Violence (this was later corrected to a more accurate headline) to mainstream media and even Drudge loves a good story about violent religious passengers:
An El Al operations officer went on Israeli radio making the claim that passengers were trying to break into the cockpit on the flight. A passenger called in that he was sitting in row 72 upstairs and that was not true. The El Al operations officer said that their cockpit is on the lower level of the 747! Hate to break it to El Al, but the cockpit is always upstairs on the Queen of the Skies…
El Al also claimed that they only realized after taking off that they would not make it to Israel before Shabbos. Unless they found a way to make their 747s fly above the speed of sound, there was no way that they would make it to Israel before Shabbos. The plane was going to be diverted from the moment it took off.
El Al refused to say to the Post why passengers were lied to and not let off the plane in JFK. They also declined to say why their crew was late.
I’ve been trying to piece together the timeline.
We know that the flight was supposed to depart at 6:30pm, but didn’t board until 8:30pm due to the El Al crew getting stuck in traffic on the way to JFK.
I spoke to Ben Chafetz, a business class passenger on flight #002. He was one of the passengers asking to go back to the terminal, but there was no violence.
This scene happened at 11:14pm. There were requests from El Al to turn off the camera:
He and 40-50 other passengers sat down after El Al promised to go back to the terminal.
At 11:31pm Ben Chafetz sent this voice note to his brother that the pilot had said the flight would be cancelled and would return to the gate, but that it looked like the pilot was turning away from the terminal and proceeding to takeoff. Ben says that he thinks this was about 4 or 5 minutes after the pilot promised to return to the terminal.
At 11:38pm he shared his suspicion that the pilot was pulling a fast one on them and would break his promise.
He shares his Whatsapp timeline and voice notes with his reaction to what was happening:
Below is the ATC audio starting at 11:23pm. Scroll down to listen to it.
At first the pilot requests permission to return to the gate and is granted it. However at 11:26pm he asks to hold there for a minute or 2 as there were issues with the passengers.
According to Ben, this is about when the pilot then promised passengers to return to the terminal if they sat down.
Unfortunately while dozens of passengers heard this promise, I have yet to actually hear any audio of it. That means we don’t know the exact time that this happened. If you do have any audio or know what time this promise happened, please post a comment.
At 11:27pm the pilot requested permission to depart as soon as possible due to “passengers making problems.”
The air traffic controller appears to be surprised by this statement. Normally when an airplane is having problematic (or violent, eh El Al?) passengers, they deboard them immediately so that things don’t escalate in-flight. The last thing they would want to do is take off with problematic passengers. This is the opposite of standard operating procedure.
Take a listen to the ATC audio of the pilot talking to the tower and read through the transcript below to follow along.
Below is a transcript of the ATC audio provided by LiveATC.net and Chaikel. The references to “Golf, Hotel, Alpha” etc. are references to ground locations on the taxiways. Kind of like street signs and intersections.
Elal (11:23pm): Ground, good evening. Elal 002 on Golf short of Alpha. We have to return to the gate. We’d appreciate, ehh, to Alpha to Hotel Bravo.
JFK Ground: Alright Elal 002 heavy, and you’re coming out of Golf
Elal: Coming out of Golf, and we request Alpha and we are… approximate, we are eh…
Ground: And you’re going to Hotel Bravo, right?
Elal: Yes I am
Ground: OK, Elal 002 heavy, you can taxi right Alpha
Elal: Right Alpha, and hold short Hotel Bravo, 008 (Apparently saying the flight number of the other troubled El Al flight that evening before correcting himself,)… 002
Elal (11:26pm): Will we be able to continue to the takeoff runway we have problems with some passengers. We will get an update in like 1 minute or 2 minutes. If it’s possible to wait here and then we’ll let you know if know if we can continue to the takeoff, or back to the gate
JFK Ground: Alright Elal 002 heavy just hold short of Hotel then please
Elal: Hold short of Hotel, Elal 002 heavy
JFK Ground: And as soon as you know just update me please
Elal: Thank you very much sir, I appreciate it
JFK Ground (11:27pm): Just hold your position right there for now, and I’ll have further for you
Elal: Holding position, Elal 002
Elal: Elal 002 we’d appreciate to depart as soon as possible, otherwise the passengers will continue making problems
JFK Ground: Uh ok Elal 002 heavy, you can continue on Alpha, just hold short of Hotel Bravo, change to ground on 121.65, she’s gonna get you the rest of the way.
Elal: 121.65 continue on Alpha, hold short Hotel Bravo Elal 002
Elal (11:29pm): Elal 002 short of Hotel Alpha
JFK Ground: Elal 002 hold short of Juliet
Elal: Hold short of Juliet, Elal 002
JFK Ground (11:30pm): Elal 002 departure frequency when it’s time is 125.7
Elal: 125.7 Elal 008 (Saying the wrong flight number for the 2nd time before correcting)…002
JFK Ground: Elal 002 you’ll follow Air France cross runway 31 left, and tower is 123.9
Kennedy Tower (11:42pm): Elal 002 heavy Kennedy Tower, caution wake turbulence, runway 04 Left. Line up and wait. Altimeter 2976
Elal: 2976, 04 Left, line up and wait, Elal 002
Kennedy Tower (11:44pm): Elal 002 heavy, caution wake turbulence winds 080 at 23, gust 38. Runway 04 Left. Cleared for takeoff
Elal: 04 Left Cleared for takeoff, Elal 002
Elal (11:46pm): NY Departure, good evening, Elal 002 out of 1,700 of heading 100
NY Departure: Elal 002 NY departure radar contact. Climb and maintain 11,000
Elal: Climb and maintain 11,000, Elal 002
The plane was taxiing between 11:27pm-11:45pm and passengers didn’t stand up again due to the movement of the plane. Many passengers were shocked when the plane went airborne as the last announcement from the pilot was that they were returning to the gate.
So, what happened between 11:23pm when the pilot requested permission to return to the gate and told passengers that they would be able to deboard and 11:26pm when the pilot requested to hold for a minute and 11:27pm when the pilot requested permission for immediate takeoff?
Did the pilot have a change of heart and just want to be home for the weekend? After all, he got to fly the 747 home empty of passengers after landing in Athens.
Or did the orders come from corporate even if it meant having to divert the plane? That way El Al could operate the return flight early Sunday morning from Tel Aviv to JFK using that same 747 aircraft.
If that was the case it was surely a business decision, which is their right. But it’s a decision that will cost them more than the value of a cancelled flight in the long-run, especially considering the lies that were required to make it happen.
Throughout the flight, the pilot refused to explain why he promised to return passengers to the terminal before taking off. Why didn’t he ever come clean? This mystery is unsolved for now, though I’d love to hear your theories!
HT: Ben Chafetz and Chaikel