End of runway for EL AL in SA
When word got out last week that EL AL would be cancelling the only direct flight between Johannesburg and Tel Aviv from April 2024, it sent the local community into shock and marked the end of an era.
Speculation about this dreaded decision had been swirling for some time, particularly as tensions between South Africa and Israel escalated following the Hamas massacre on 7 October, and South Africa accusing Israel of genocide in the International Court of Justice at The Hague, a claim it vehemently denies.
The confirmation on Friday, 26 January, that EL AL would no longer do this route hit hard, especially given the airline’s explanation, citing the “current security situation” and a decrease in demand among Israeli travellers to the country.
For many, it felt like a profound loss, with some feeling abandoned. One passenger shared that “Flying EL AL always filled me with immense pride, as if I were returning to my spiritual home on a Jewish airline.” Another remarked, “Despite the security balagan and occasional brashness of the crew, I always felt safe, and it was my small way of supporting the holy land.”
For many, the non-stop flight was convenient, especially for elderly parents or those who were wheelchair bound, and a fast and direct link connecting them to loved ones and their heritage.
“I know there are other – some would argue better – airline choices, which also offer kosher meals and better entertainment consoles, but there’s nothing like that hamish vibe and having no-one bat an eyelid as men daven together at the back of a plane making a minyan,” said another.
The cancellation of the bi-weekly flight will mean that there are no direct flights from Israel to South Africa, and is a further blow to the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the two countries.
“Israelis don’t want to fly to South Africa. They are cancelling flights, and planes are pretty empty. We understand that it’s the situation because it was different before,” The Times of Israel quoted EL AL as saying.
“The fact that the Israelis don’t want to go to South Africa but do want to go to other places helps us decide that we’re pausing that route,” the source said.
EL AL said that once it had stopped flying to Johannesburg, it would shift the wide-body aircraft it uses on the route to expand current destinations to North America, Bangkok, and Tokyo, while examining new routes.
Passengers have been offered refunds for flights already booked or vouchers, but some say this is small comfort considering the lasting emotional impact of this decision on the community.
“I’ve stuck with EL AL for years out of loyalty even though sometimes I bitched and moaned about the rudeness or the fluctuating ticket prices. I guess it’s because the airline has an unwavering commitment to bringing Jews to and from the promised land.
“When you touch down at Ben Gurion on an EL AL flight, it somehow feels right. I felt this especially when I flew with my sons for their Barmitzvahs,” said another passenger.
The airline was founded in September 1948, when it flew its maiden flight, bringing home Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, from a diplomatic visit to Geneva. In 1949, EL AL participated in Operation Magic Carpet, bringing Jews of Yemen to Israel. In May 1960, EL AL transported the famous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann from Buenos Aires to Jerusalem for the Eichmann Trial. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, EL AL continued flying, and assisted in airlifting military equipment.
In 1991, EL AL participated in Operation Solomon, transporting thousands of Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. One flight carried more than 1 088 people, including two babies who were reportedly born on the flight.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation said in a joint statement, “During our meeting with EL AL last year, it became apparent that operating a once-a-week flight was economically challenging for it. Unfortunately, even increasing the frequency to three times a week didn’t attract the expected passenger numbers. As a private company, EL AL’s operations are driven by commercial viability.
“The potential loss of EL AL’s direct flights is devastating for our community. However, we also acknowledge that the current travel landscape offers multiple alternative options for travel between Israel and South Africa, a significant change from the situation 15 years ago when these flights were last at risk.
“Our ongoing dialogue with EL AL and the Israeli government is open and constructive,” the organisations said, and they were proactively exploring various strategies and proposals around the economic feasibility of this route and potentially finding a solution that could result in the reinstatement of EL AL’s direct flights in the future.
“Our community deeply values its connection with Israel, and we’re dedicated to maintaining and strengthening this bond through all available means,” according to the statement.
Dozens of flights to and from Tel Aviv were cancelled by major airlines in the wake of the 7 October Hamas attacks, though many resumed in December and January as rocket attacks from Gaza on the centre of Israel lessened.
Longstanding EL AL general manager of southern and eastern Africa, Roz Bukris, wouldn’t comment further.