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EL AL’s closure forces employees into new pastures



The last direct flight between Johannesburg and Tel Aviv left the runway on 29 March 2024, surrounded by an emotional team of EL AL employees, some of them bidding farewell to the job they had held for years.

Terry Dedeu (41), the managing supervisor of security, has worked at EL AL for 13 years. She’s a born and bred South African mother of two.

“Since closing our South African station, all security staff faced the choice either to leave our jobs at the airline or travel fulltime in order to retain our positions,” she says from Athens, Greece, where she has been stationed for the past month.

“Although my family were used to me travelling for work to sister stations in Seychelles, Zanzibar, and Kilimanjaro, I’m now travelling fulltime. The fact that I hold visas for both Europe and the United States helps a lot. For some of my colleagues with young families and visa issues, it has been a lot harder to make the same decision.”

In 2005, Gliad Sabah (40), an Israeli citizen, arrived in South Africa to work at EL AL. When he left the company to explore the private sector for a brief period, he was unhappy and returned to EL AL to slowly begin working his way up the ranks to the position of deputy manager of security.

“EL AL just felt like home, and having been in the Israeli army, the safety of my people is what’s in my heart,” Sabah said.

“The steady decline of flights started during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we never quite recovered. You had to be blind not to see closure coming for EL AL in South Africa.”

The choice given to all security employees was a decision Sabah made easily. “It’s all a matter of perspective,” he said. “I chose to see the advantages of travelling for work. Now, when I return home to South Africa, I’m officially off-duty and can spend that quality time with my family.”

In South Africa, EL AL is unique in that its employees are often breadwinners who have held dedicated positions in the company for upwards of seven years. It’s not just a job, but a career for many of them. Worldwide stations have a much greater turnover of mostly young Israeli, part-time employees.

Only 10% to 12% of local security employees made the choice to leave the company. Many of them doubted their employability elsewhere.

“I had no choice but to seek work elsewhere,” said Tracy Levy (49). “EL AL has been my life for 29 years. The team I worked with was like family bonded by the same intrinsic values held by the company. That’s not something you can replace easily. Neither was the lifestyle that the salary afforded me. The hunt for a new job was daunting, and with my niche skillset, as well as being older, it made leaving the job I loved even harder.”

Levy recalls a time when EL AL was filling three 747 aircrafts a week. “It wasn’t only local Jewish passengers visiting family in Israel, we were boarding big Christian prayer groups making their annual pilgrimages to the holy land. I think the massive increase in airfares, our dwindling local community, as well as a big shift in disposal income all contributed to the lack of commercial viability for the business.

“Toronto closed two years ago for the same reason. It’s not personal or political. It’s just business,” Levy said, pointing out that “We were down to one flight a week pre-7 October, so the timing of EL AL’s announcement of closure coinciding with South Africa’s stance against Israel in the International Court of Justice was purely coincidental.”

According to Levy, EL AL is shifting its focus to the Far East, where it’s more commercially viable.

“I tried to remain hopeful, but I knew closure was imminent and when it did happen, I had no choice. It came down to personal preference, depending on family dynamics, priorities, and responsibilities,” she said.

“I had to consider my husband and three children. It wasn’t an option to travel fulltime. Also considering the fact that I’m observant, keeping Shabbat and kosher can also be tricky with travel. Although it was a horrible decision to have to make, it wasn’t a hard one for me.”

After a series of interviews at various companies, Levy realised the salary she was accustomed to wouldn’t be easily matched. But it was just as important to her to find the right job.

Today, Levy is employed by the Community Security Organisation. “Its mission, ‘Protecting Jewish life and Jewish way of life’ really spoke to me the same way my work at EL AL had,” Levy said.

“There’s a level of self-assurance in what I’m doing because of why I’m doing it. It’s the closest I could ever wish to get in terms of fulfilment. Although the change has been a pretty scary challenge, with a few lifestyle changes and some schedule adjustments, I’m ready to embrace this new chapter.”

Benjamin Schaimberg (31), a newly employed member of the security team, has been working for EL AL for only 18 months. “I’m taking the opportunity to travel and see the world,” he said. “Being newly married has made it a little tougher, but at this stage of my life with no big family obligations, the pros outweigh the cons.”

Security is a high-pressure position with no room for error. It requires intense and rigorous training which EL AL South Africa provided, Schaimberg said. “My job has taken me to Germany, Poland, Rome, New York, and Greece, and working overseas has proven that South African standards are unmatched compared to our sister stations worldwide, which stands me in good stead internationally.”

Past and present employees are feeling the loss of their EL AL family, apart from the loss of stability, comfort, and routine. The airline’s closure certainly marks the end of an era for all of us.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. John

    July 3, 2024 at 11:33 pm

    I can’t imagine how difficult that would be. For a short time before Covid, we had El Al here at MCO – Orlando FL. Not any more. I hope they’re able to return. I did connect in ATL and JFK on Delta. But would have loved to experience El Al. I’m wiki g in a November trio that may include them. I’m a Christian who loves and respects Jews, the Jewish culture and community, and totally fell in love with Israel once I got there

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