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Can I be a Zionist but hate El Al?

When the national airline defies every effort to polish Israel's image, complaining may be all I can do
El Al airplanes on the tarmac at the Ben Gurion International Airport on August 14, 2012. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
El Al airplanes on the tarmac at the Ben Gurion International Airport on August 14, 2012. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

“Efshar la-azor?” she barked. Really not meaning a word. Her unpleasant and aggressive demeanor made it clear that next to changing a soiled diaper, helping me was the last thing she wanted to be doing.

Her gaze bore into me and it was very clear that I had intruded on her “me time.” But she was behind the counter at Gate D4 at Ben Gurion and we were 50 minutes away from boarding, so it was not that unreasonable for me to approach her to ask why it was that I had no seat.

It was after all, her job.

South Africans are by nature polite. Too polite in fact. We can’t help ourselves. So I enquired very sweetly if perhaps she might consider explaining why I was listed on “Standby” when I had confirmed my booking and had even completed an early check in.

“The flight is not closed!” she mumbled as though I should know that. And as though I would understand the relevance. “Come back after boarding starts.”

I am a lifetime platinum member on SAA, and Gold on a few other airlines. I know that this is not how it works. I am in fact certain that there is no real benefit to an airline keeping a seat allocation a secret from a customer.

Unless there is a problem.

But for some reason no one would tell me why I didn’t have a seat on the nine-hour flight to Johannesburg.

It made little sense to me.

So I sought clarification. “You have seat!’ said she even more irritable now (not that I thought it was possible). What little patience she might have had (none) was now in dangerous territory. In my mind’s eye I saw the needle of a Geiger counter edging dangerously into the red. Alarms were about to start screaming and it was going to get ugly.

“You just don’t know where it is.” She condescended.

“Ah” the South African in me responded, nodding my head pathetically. I really wanted to be a good boy.

“So who does?”

She rolled her eyes and walked away. Actually, rolling her eyes would have required some effort and engagement. She actually just walked away.

I got a seat after the rest of the country boarded. 54K (two rows from the back) on the what has to be the oldest 767 on God’s earth. The sound of flushing toilets was to be the soundtrack for this flight. Which was not a bad thing considering that the whole right hand side of the plane had lost the use of the electronics, so using a reading light was impossible and watching the El Al “drive-in” style entertainment was not an option either. The constant “Whoosh” of the lavatory along with rasping breath of the woman behind me (she might well be dead by now) are the “Sights and sounds” that I will associate with this trip.

The flight didn’t improve. We had been delayed a further forever on the plane because of a seating mix-up (who would have thought) after which we finally got on our way.

You will recall that there were no reading lights on our side of the aircraft. The main cabin light had been dimmed and there was no space to take out my laptop. So all I could do was listen to the melodious flush of the toilets and focus on just how thirsty I was. I comforted myself with the the knowledge that most airlines serve drinks both from the front and back of the plane. So the wait wouldn’t be long. Generally, the flight attendants meet graciously in the middle (somewhere around row 30) after which they move back to where they started.

Well not on this 1970s 767 classic. Nope. They started in the front of the cabin roughly an hour after take off, which meant it was now two hours into the actual flight, after a forever delay, after waiting at the gate trying to secure a seat, that I finally was awarded 100 ml of soda.

I could not believe that passengers accepted this. Even the Israeli ones. This is not a patient nation. Try remaining stationary in your car a millisecond after a traffic light considers turning green in Israel and see what happens to you. Try and get people to wait in a queue when everyone has just “One quick question” to ask. This is not a nation known to be laid back. And yet El Al has beaten them into compliance.

It’s a wonder.

I feel terrible complaining. I spend hours of my day involved in Israel advocacy. I do what I can to make sure the country gets a fair shake in a part of the world where many are not friends. I take on the press and I pay the price for that. But El Al, the country’s national airline, needs to help out.

About the Author
Howard Feldman is a lawyer, a physical commodity trader by industry and a writer by obsession. He is very active in the Jewish community and passionate about our world.
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