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10 lessons from that El Al flight to Athens

I'm a transatlantic frequent flyer, and these are my take-aways from a travel experience like no other
Illustrative: An El Al flight taking off. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative: An El Al flight taking off. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

I traveled from JFK to Tel Aviv on the now infamous Thursday night flight and spent Shabbat in Athens. I am a long-time frequent flyer of El Al (top platinum and platinum status) and for many years have traveled back and forth on the Israel-NY route. Although I have many airline choices, I have consistently chosen El Al because of my belief it is the airline that is most likely to get me home for Shabbat in the event of a problem.

Over the years, I have literally traveled on a few hundred transatlantic El Al flights and can honestly say I have never had an experience like last Thursday. To put this in perspective, I have even been on a flight which took off from Tel Aviv, recognized it had a landing gear problem, circled in the air for hours until the sun came out and then had to make an emergency landing in Tel Aviv with a runway filled with fire engines, TV crews, politicians, and the CEO of El Al. Although everyone on that flight knew the life-threatening situation we faced and that we had been circling in the air for several hours, that flight did not experience a fraction of the drama and panic that was present in Thursday’s flight.

Although it is atypical for me to write something like this, I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason and although I cannot know for sure, perhaps one of the reasons I was on that flight was to share my perspective.

I learned numerous lessons from the flight and Shabbat and have chosen to share them in a format of five negative and five positive lessons that I learned. I am using this format not to belittle the event, but to help me better organize and share a bevy of emotions and thoughts that are still racing through my head. 

Finally, by way of background, my seat on the plane was 25G (the first row of the coach middle seats, in an aisle seat). I mention this because I feel I had a relatively good view of the different sections of the airplane and passengers , although admittedly not the upstairs business class cabin where the pilot cabin is also located.

Five Negative Experiences and Lessons from the Flight

  1. Lack of Transparency — Many of the issues the passengers faced could have been avoided through better transparency. The passengers on the flight were left uninformed and even deceived numerous times (I’d like to think unintentionally) on the flight. The worst example of this was, after the full plane had waited on the runway for hours and many of the passengers wished to deplane, the pilot asked everyone to return to their seats as we were returning to the gate. Everyone complied and after a few minutes of taxiing we took off for Israel(!). This created confusion and anxiety. Other examples of lack of transparency included the pilot assuring us numerous times not to deplane at the gate, as he was certain we would arrive in Israel an hour before Shabbat, the flight screens consistently showing an arrival time in Israel of 3:20 p,m. (an hour before Shabbat), and not being told until there were only a few hours left in the flight that we would be landing in Athens and not Israel. The stewardesses were also left uninformed and relayed they had no further information at any point in the flight. This created a sense of discomfort and even panic among many of the passengers.
  2. Lack of Leadership — I do not envy the pilots of this plane, who were undoubtedly under a lot of pressure and in a very difficult situation. Having said that, the pilot is the commander of the vessel and that means not just maneuvering the airplane which a computer can now do, but they need to lead. There was tremendous confusion on the plane and the pilots needed to assure and calm the passengers and the cabin crew. Instead, they remained locked in the cabin and refused to communicate or engage directly with the passengers. This caused anger, confusion and tension. Strong leadership would have ameliorated many of the issues. Additionally, the lack of presence of the CEO of El Al was felt. When we had the serious problem with the landing gear on the previously mentioned flight, we were greeted by the CEO of El Al (not chocolates) when we deplaned. The lack of leadership was felt from the top down.
  3. Lack of Communication The lack of communication between the staff of the flight and the passengers contributed to the problem. Information was not communicated and direct contact between the staff and passengers was halted. Passengers felt abandoned. The galley was strewn with garbage, as hungry passengers had to help themselves to meals and pile up the trays in the kitchen when they were finished. This contributed to a strong sense of abandonment and ultimately panic.
  4. Disorganization — The flight was riddled with disorganization from the beginning. The flight crew arrived more than two hours late from New York, which did not allow us to board until that time. As the weather was snowing, it would have made sense for El Al to proactively anticipate the bad traffic conditions (like all the passengers had done) and send the crew two hours earlier from their hotels in Manhattan. Had they done this, the flight could have left two hours earlier and the whole problem might have been avoided. Additionally, watching the crew come in two hours late contributed early to the ire and disappointment of the passengers. Another example of disorganization included the lack of hotel rooms for the religious passengers spending Shabbat in Athens. The staff in Athens (who were excellent) were told to expect 70 passengers, when there were really closer to 150. This required us to double and triple up in the hotel, as not enough rooms were booked. A simple census on the plane asking the passengers who planned to spend shabbat in Athens, would have avoided this issue.
  5. Disempowerment — Unfortunately the passengers were disempowered. Any customer should have the right to disembark from an airplane after waiting hours on the runway and certainly for religious reasons. By denying their customer that right, El Al denied its customers basic rights.

Having cast the blame elsewhere, I would unfortunately also like to point out that I do not believe that we the passengers were blameless either. The distressed conditions raised the stress level and ugly prejudice between the religious and non-religious reared its head. I’m not even sure why we were arguing, as everyone on the plane seemed to want to go directly to Israel and not to Greece. Nonetheless, the raised tensions caused us to scream and accuse each other of different agendas. Why? We all just wanted to land safely in Tel Aviv. We all should have been more courteous and respectful to the crew who were not responsible for the decisions. With the benefit of hindsight and calmer conditions, I think we need to recognize that we were all one group (including the crew) who were placed in an extremely stressful situation, trying to get to our homes, families, or vacation destinations before Shabbat.

Although I certainly would not wish my crew or fellow secular passengers any further discomfort, in some ways, I am saddened that we did not all have the opportunity to spend shabbat together in Athens. I think the time together might have helped us come together and heal as a community and recognize that ultimately we are all a united group who only want the best for each other.

Five Positive Experiences and Lessons in Greece

  1. Community — One of the most striking outcomes from the shabbat we spent together in Athens was the bonding and uniting of very diverse communities. We prayed together, ate together, and socialized together. On Friday night, we sang zemirot (traditional hymns) together and we even broke into spontaneous dance. Traditional prayers took on new meanings as they were chanted with fervor and new found meanings. Words of Torah were shared by learned rabbis and heartfelt emotions were expressed and communicated by the less learned. Although most of us had never met before, we met as strangers and we parted as family — and that was special.
  2. Equality — There is no question that an experience like this breaks down stereotypes. To understand and put this in perspective, there were not enough hotel rooms for everyone and so we had to agree to double- and triple-up in hotel rooms. Many of us did not previously know our self-assigned roommates. We were dressed similarly, as for the most part, we only had the clothes on our back (our suitcases were sent to Tel Aviv, so there were even some ultra religious dressers in T-shirts for Shabbat). The lack of special Shabbat clothes also broke down barriers, as we could not make assumptions about each other based upon our clothing. We were a very diverse group demographically living together, which included young and old, men and women, wealthy and poor, religious leaders, community leaders, war heroes, working class, retirees and even indigent people who had traveled to America to collect charity door to door. We were Haredi Israelis, Haredi Americans, Zionists, Modern Orthodox, Hassidim, traditional, and even some secular. We were Ashkenazim, Sefardim and Edot HaMizrach. Because we roomed together, prayed together, ate together, and commiserated together, social and religious barriers were removed. Heads of religious institutions sat at tables and socialized with women with their hair uncovered and dressed in pants. The wealthy served the poor their food. There were no cliques. There were no fights on what should be said or omitted in prayers or which dialect to pray in. There was only bonding and healing.
  3. Responsibility — In a last-minute difficult situation, such as this one, it was heartwarming to see the large number of individuals from the flight who assumed unofficial leadership roles in helping the group. Examples of this included the rabbi, who made sure that everyone had a room and took charge of the prayers, the rabbis who provided words of Torah and encouragement, the professional chazan (cantor) who lead some of the prayers and the singing and dancing, the passengers, who delayed eating their own Shabbat meals to serve the larger group and make sure everyone was well fed, the younger people, who took in older roommates to help care for them, the passengers who purchased wine and soft drinks for the passengers, so that everyone could be more comfortable. There were many other examples as well.
  4. Shabbat — As one of the passengers pointed out, in this day and age, we live in relative prosperity and modernity and can relatively easily observe the sabbath. By choosing to observe this Sabbath, this group of passengers were compelled to spend shabbat in a foreign country — without family, and in challenging and atypical accomodations, allowing many of us the opportunity to re-evaluate our observance and gain a new appreciation for the Shabbat and new insights. This is something I personally hope I can bring home with me and share with my family and renew on a weekly basis in my home.
  5. Hospitality This list could not be complete without expressing deep admiration and heartfelt appreciation to the Chabad of Athens, Rav Mendel Hendel, Rebbetzin Nechama Hendel, and their son Levi. Without much prior notice, the Hendel family moved in to our hotel for Shabbat and took care of all of our needs. They arranged the kosher food, the prayer books, the Sefer Torah… and spent hours in the kitchen serving us, while we ate our meals. It is important to express appreciation to El Al for providing us nice accomodations, good and plentiful food and access to the Hendel family for Shabbat. Additionally, Tina and the El Al Greek staff were exceptionally helpful in helping us with the hotel and flights.

In summary, we had a challenging and interesting few days as a group. However, by and large, I believe most members of the Athens group would agree that we gained a lot from the experience. While none of us would ever had chosen this experience from the outset (or choose it again!), we have undoubtedly become enriched by the experience.

About the Author
Yehuda Stark is a frequent flyer of El Al.
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