Related posts (Read these first):
- El Al Diverts Flight 8 From JFK To Tel Aviv, Shamefully Flies Passengers Far Too Close To Shabbos And Strands Them At Athens Airport
- Here’s How El Al Circumvents Shabbos Flight Restrictions
In the 1950s El Al was a bold, risk taking carrier. It bet the company on the Britannia Turboprop, which would allow them to cross the Atlantic without a refueling stop in Goose Bay or Gander, Canada as was the norm in those days.
The bet didn’t exactly pay off. After many delays El Al finally received the Britannia in September 1957. On a proving flight, El Al broke the world record for nonstop distance covered by an airliner when they flew 6,100 miles nonstop from NYC to Tel Aviv in 14 hours and 56 minutes.
However just a year later Pan Am flew the first Boeing 707 and that was the plane that would usher in the Jet age. The Britannia was soon obsolete. I guess it’s no surprise that El Al turned into the cautious carrier it is today, as they slowly update a aging fleet and add new destinations without investing enough capital in a modern website and a functional mileage program.
There have been several accounts of what happened on El Al flight 8 last Thursday.
The plane, according to the report, continued to Athens while the religious passengers were put up in hotels in Canada. At the same time, the company specifically sent two Sun d’Or planes to Athens to collect passengers who are not Sabbath-observant, so that the El Al plane would not fly on Shabbat.
Clearly this is #FakeNews. Multiple people were told by El Al that they could not leave the plane in Canada. Ycohen wrote that El Al said in Canada that nobody could disembark but that the plane would stop in London and passengers would be accommodated there for Shabbos.
Arutz Sheva also quoted El Al as saying,
Passengers who wished to return to Israel during the Sabbath were referred to another operator’s flights. El Al returned on a non-commercial flight as a cargo flight to Israel with crew members only. Sabbath-keeping passengers will return to Israel this evening. El Al does not fly passengers on Shabbat, and so it was this time, as well.
Of course it wasn’t really another operator. It was more of a shell game where they had competing Israeli airline Israir fly 2 El Al 737s, that are shared with El Al subsidiary Sun D’Or, to Athens to pick up passengers. Those 737s normally fly on El Al routes.
I am reluctantly writing as I do not usually join online conversations. I will not use any real names to preserve privacy. I recently moved with my family to Jerusalem and was in Boston for work. El Al cancelled my flight from Boston to Tel Aviv on Thursday so I ended up on flight 008 instead. There are three overarching points worth noting:
1. There were many people who seemed to be sincerely religious people and had legitimate reasons for flying so close to Shabbat including getting rebooked from cancelled flights, family celebrations, visiting the sick, etc. All had the goal of making to Israel in time for Shabbat and most probably knew that there was some risk of needing to spend Shabbat in a place other than their intended destination. That said, I don’t think any of them thought that El Al would leave them in Athens 5-10 minutes after candle lighting time.
2. There were many nice things worth noting in the spirit of hakarat hatov. The flight attendants, the staff at the Sofitel, and the people who banded together for Shabbat. See below for more details.
3. There are areas where El Al can improve and I fully expect that they will. A more careful understanding of Jewish law would have helped El Al realize that they should either not have flown onto Athens OR let people get off in Gander. Some commenters seem to think that El Al has no obligation vis-à-vis helping observant passengers. That may or may not be true insofar as its legal obligations are concerned, but I don’t think El Al wants to lose its observant Thursday passengers. I suspect this was a simple mistake that requires a mea culpa and an adjustment of policy.
4. Whether El Al should or should not carry passengers on Shabbat in this type of situation is debatable. But the resultant manifest chilul hashem cannot be ignored. El Al ended up flying the 747 without passengers to Israel and ferrying the passengers who wished to get home to Israel on one or two other airplanes (ostensibly operated by Jewish pilots). There was no net saving of work done on Shabbat through this rigmarole. Why was it done? To satisfy some of my coreligionists who value style and pretense over substance and rectitude. It is pretty hard for me to understand why El Al – given the circumstances – could not continue flying its passengers to Tel Aviv. In fact, it is worth a question to a qualified posek. The airline might be disinclined to stop for a medical situation that is not obviously urgent (as was the case here) if they know that they will need to fly 2-3 airplanes instead of one. This reminds me of the famous responsum of Rabbi Feinstein regarding a doctor returning by car from a hospital on Shabbat.
For more details of what happened, keep on reading below:
As has previously been reported, we were supposed to land at 5pm, which would have given us enough time to make it to our various destinations by Shabbat. But we got a late start out of JFK and then had to stop in Gander for a potential medical emergency. The passenger in question was not feeling well but it was not clear if it was an urgent situation. Ultimately, a doctor decided that it was better to get the passenger to a hospital and El Al complied. We were in Gander for a long time and were told that we were flying to Europe, which many of – maybe naively – interpreted to be Paris or London. Only when the plane began departure procedures, did they announce that we were heading to Athens to land before Shabbat.
The El Al flight crew was fantastic. None appeared to be halachically observant but they were compassionate and helpful. Eyal, Nurit, Loren, Liat, Eran, Isabel, and Michal to name a few were fantastic. They found me a bottle of wine, some rolls, and many snacks to get me through Shabbat. Kudos to them. At no point have I ever been disrespected for keeping Shabbat even though the flight attendants mostly are less traditional. They acted – as they always have – with the utmost professionalism.
The airplane doors opened in Athens just after candle lighting time and we quickly boarded a bus to the terminal. We managed to clear passport control right around the time that the sun was setting. El Al then told us that they had arranged for a hotel with rooms, food, and everything else we would need for Shabbat. Approximately sixty people deplaned to spend Shabbat in Athens (with a few later deciding that returning to the plane was a better bet). Some of us decided that going to stay at the airport rather than traveling to a hotel a few kilometers away from the airport where El Al had prepared Shabbat for us. Had we landed 20-30 minutes earlier, we would have gladly gone.
This group of approximately 20 people went to the Sofitel, which is located within the airport. We managed to get the last 5 rooms in the hotel with the help of some terrific staff including Sofia, Alexander, and a few others whose names now escape me. We fit as many people into the rooms as we could (given hotel rules and logistical constraints) and a few people ended up sleeping at the airport (in the lounge).
The hotel was very accommodating throughout Shabbat even though none of the staff had ever heard of Shabbat and few seemed to know about Judaism. They allowed us to book rooms without handling credit cards or cash or signing any papers, they brought extra beds, tolerated Kabbalat Shabbat and Kiddush in the lobby at 11pm, and turned a blind eye to the relatively spirited Shabbat that we conducted on the 8th floor of the Sofitel. We had wonderful minyanim, ate meals together, and celebrated Shabbat as best we could. El Al sent someone over to our hotel on Shabbat afternoon to tell us that they would send a 787 after Shabbat to pick us up and that is exactly what they did. We made it to Israel early Sunday morning.
To sum it all up, thank you to the great flight attendants of El Al, the El Al Athens station, the amazing staff at the Sofitel (highly recommended hotel), and the amazing group of people with whom I was privileged to spend Shabbat at the Sofitel. I hope that El Al can find a way to avoid this type of situation in the future and would suggest open and honest communication with the passengers and offering options that allow passengers to make sure they will always get to a hotel (wherever El Al needs to land) before Shabbat.
I’m not sure how El Al could have been so clueless as to reserve hotel rooms that required a bus transfer from the airport. They knew that they would be landing in Athens just as Shabbos was starting and that a bus transfer would be untenable. All of this drama could have been avoided by landing in an airport like London, Paris, or Zurich and accommodating non-Shabbos observant passengers on other airlines if needed.
It is nice to hear that the crew did the best they could under the circumstances. The same can’t said for El Al management.
Luckily, Chabad came to rescue with Rebbetzin Hendel bringing Shabbos food for everyone.
Mark Jackson writes on the DansDeals Facebook page that the entire El Al process was so chaotic that conditions were so poor that many Sabbath observant Jews actually flew back on the Israir operated 737s to Tel Aviv that night. I have no way of verifying that, but the entire story is rather disheartening to hear. Many religious Jews choose to fly El Al as they don’t fly on Shabbos, but nothing they did here was of any help to them.
Meanwhile, non Sabbath observant Jews who were flying El Al business and first class on the 747 had to leave that plane and wait to fly coach on the El Al painted 737 later that night, which was operated by Israir. I’m not entirely sure why they couldn’t play the same shell game with the 747 by “leasing” it to Israir to operate…
The whole story is rather bizarre and hopefully some lessons will be learned for the future by both El Al and by Sabbath observant Jews. Perhaps they each had majorly extenuating circumstances, but there’s simply no way I would accept a booking on an international flight scheduled to arrived just 2.5 hours before Shabbos unless there was a true emergency requiring it.
What do you make of the story?
- What are El Al’s moral obligations towards religious passengers, given their commitment not to fly on Shabbos?
- Should El Al find a way to “lease” their jumbo jets to carriers like Israir in a case like this? Or should the entire shell game between Israeli airlines be disallowed, forcing El Al to book tickets on other airlines not flying El Al planes for passengers wanting to travel on Shabbos?
- What other takeaways do you have from this story?