Facts, fun and fallacies about ElAl

by Ant Katz | Jun 30, 2014

I have just been to Israel for three days – add the travelling and it makes four. “What?” I expect a lot of readers to think: “What kind of meshugena goes to Israel for just three days.” I would think the same if someone told me that too!

The fact is that I was invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to attend a conference that at first sounded too good to miss – and, as it turned out, history will show that perchance it ended up being the three most informative days of my life – and a pivotal point for world Jewry. But that is the subject of blogs and articles already written, or yet to be written.

For today, suffice it to say that the hapstance of timing and the evolving new INNITIATIVE OF THINKING by Israel in respect of diaspora Jewry and the world at large is something I could, and maybe, someday, will write a multi-volume tome about.

This blog, however, is about something we as Jews take for granted all too often - the travelling experience.


What is it with SA Jewry and ElAl?

Seasoned Israeli travellers will know about the amazing experience of travelling with ElAl. I, on the other hand, am not a seasoned Israeli traveller (although I hope to become more so) but have travelled with many airlines to many countries.

SA Jewry fall into the pro- or anti-ElAl camp.

Let's be clear, this is by no means an advertorial for ElAl – it is a personal experience that blew me away. Maybe my expectations were low because I have heard many people complaining about ElAl in one way or another for enough time that I wasn’t expecting any great shakes.

I know, I really, really do know, that Jews really, really like to complain. Even if there’s nothing to complain about, we find something to complain about. And I know that complaints should be filtered to account for that. But still, I all too often fall into that trap of forming an opinion based of why this one didn’t like a show – so I don’t go and see it and miss something great. Or that that one complained about the attitude of the staff at a certain business – and I wait months before trying it, only to end up angry that I didn’t go before as the service was so great.

I get angry at myself, not at the complainant, because it was I who had fallen into that trap again.

As it happened, on the week I was travelling, ElAl offered the lowest price, most suitable times for me, and, what’s more, the only non-stop route which was important as embarking and disembarking was going to be difficult for me at the time. You see, on this trip, I was the customer from hell! I was a special-needs passenger (SEE BELOW) who could not match his needs with his budget. I needed wheelchair assistance to board and disembark, a seat with extra legroom and a 110 or 220v electric plug.

I will bore you with the details of that later. Suffice it to say, in a very Jewish and/or Israeli way, one way or another my needs were met completely, against ElAl policies and despite all the naysayers.

What I am trying to say is that I blame myself for having allowed folks to leave me with the low expectations, for falling into that trap, AGAIN!

Here’s the thing… the one simple fact: In so many ways, ElAl was incredible.


I arrived in Israel before I left Jo’burg

As soon as I arrived at the first line of security at OR Tambo Airport, I immediately felt at home. I was a Jew surrounded by fellow Jews and Israelis, many of whom I knew, and hence already felt like I was safe, sound and at home. I kept expecting the security staff to be rude, because, my bad again, I’d heard so many complaints about it.

What utter rot! Poppycock! As it turned out, they were courteous and friendly, even when they looked at me and my nine-year-old passport picture and refused to see that it was one and the same person (I’ve lost 13kg since that was taken, cropped the hair and added a beard.)

Several security folk gathered to confer and concurred with the initial opinion that I wasn’t me, I was an imposter. Then, a friendly voice said: “Does Sir maybe have a more recent picture, maybe a drivers’ license?” Eureka, I pulled out my drivers’ and my press card, both with pictures taken in the past year, and I was a-for-away.

Regular ElAl rules meant that there was no way I was going to get extra legroom or a plug unless I paid $150 for economy-plus or gazillions for Business Class. I understand. Rules are rules. Fine, I do understand that – not that I didn’t do my best to buck the system. Would I be a good Jew if I didn’t?

So ElAl did their best and ensured that I was pre-seated on a right hand aisle seat so I could hang my leg out – and had my electric machine in my backpack – but only because it costs four times as much as my computer and weighs less.

By now I’d reconciled myself to my fate that I wouldn’t be able to sleep on the plane and had ensured I stored lots of sleep in the preceding two days. In any case, I figured, with the ElAl non-stop flight, I’d have a few spare hours to cat-nap between my arrival at the hotel and the beginning of the conference.


Listen to me all you complainants…

How could I have allowed the ‘serial complainers’ to get to me about the crew? I have to say that I found that the ground and air staff to be courteous to the extreme – I had been groomed to expect otherwise? Ever noticed how sweet it sounds when a female voice offers a “slicha” vs. the more guttural male version, which almost sounds like one should get ready to be slapped?

I’ve flown on roughly ten international carriers over the past fifteen years, and I can honestly say that the Economy Class meals on ElAl outshone any other that I can remember. How could I have allowed the yentas to have convinced me otherwise? Once again I had allowed myself to fall into their trap. Anyway, its better to expect less and get more, I suppose.

After everyone but me had turned out the lights and gone to sleep, a sweet-sounding: “Slicha, you not go to sleep?” led me to answer and explain why I couldn’t – and, in any case I said, if I sleep without my electrical assistance nobody else in the cabin was likely to sleep through the noise.

It wasn’t more than a few minutes later that I was ushered to an empty economy-plus seat with an electric plug and was able to sleep the night away. Until they woke me for breakfast and, of course, insisted I return to my booked seat as that’s policy.


Was this simply a lucky one-way break?

By the time I checked in for the return flight three days later, I had had two consecutive nights of seriously deprived sleep. Media is a strange business. It happens no matter what. Deadlines are deadlines and they have to be met. So, on the Monday night I got not much more than three hours sleep and on the Tuesday night I had even less (although work only occupied me until around midnight and the remainder of the night is better left as censored content).

Wednesday was an intense conferencing day and I constantly filled up on custard tarts and other sugar-loaded substances to keep alert. Heck, I even had several spoons of sugar in as many cups of coffee as I could get my hands on – and anyone who knows me knows I absolutely hate sweetened coffee.

So, by the time I got to the airport this time around, there was no such luxury of stored sleep. In fact, clearly, I was going to pass out once I got on that plane come hell or high water!

So I ensured I got to the airport very early and I tried to explain my predicament. The security and check-in staff was, again, courteous - but quite adamant that I would have to use the allotted centre right hand aisle seat that had been allocated to me.

So now, I thought, it was going to be a lengthy tussle between tired-Jew vs. bureaucratic-Jews. I gritted my teeth and prepared myself for all-out warfare. It turned out to be anything but. Once the check-in girl realised I had a real sleep impediment, she referred me to a supervisor who called a higher authority and it turned out that they had a policy in place for CPAP-users – even though none of them knew what it meant.

The ElAl doctor on duty (can you believe they have one of those) promptly arrived on the scene, discussed my condition, examined my device and announced that they had to accommodate me or he would not allow me to fly.

What? Not fly? Now I began to worry. The reservation folks remained adamant that I could not get a seat outside of economy. I was adamant that I could not pay for anything else. And so an ElAl technical guy was called in to see if they could solve the problem. On some of their 767’s, it turned out, ElAl did provide plug-points at some of their economy seats.

The soon-to-be Joburg-bound plane was inspected and found not to be one of those that had them. I started to feel really worried at the thought of ElAl putting me up at a hotel until a a plane that had plugs in economy was scheduled. I was trapped – the doc wouldn’t let me fly and the reservation folks wouldn’t give me a seat he would accept.

My concern must have been palpable because the reservation supervisor, doctor and technician kept telling me to take a seat and relax. They would find a way. Coffee was brought for me. “Three sugars please,” said I.

After some further conferencing a solution was found. One that satisfied all three sets of rules. “’n Jood maak ‘n plan,” as they used to say during the Boer War.


Without the pic, nobody would believe this

At 11pm a technical team was dispatched to the plane. They allocated me the very back row centre aisle seat – right in front of the back galley. They ran an electrical cable from the kitchen behind, over the top of the panelling behind the seat, down the panel (held in place by electrical insulation tape), installed a plug-point on the floor behind my seat and, as they say in the classics, Bob’s your uncle.

PICTURED RIGHT – the picture shows the temporary installation of the wiring running down the panel behind the last row of seats


Throughout what was at least three hours of problem-solving, the ElAl staffers were at pains to ensure that this haggard-looking passenger from hell was treated with the courtesy one would expect normally granted to Platinum-card-carrying First Class-paying customers.

Of course bypassing the carrier’s policy of no free upgrades could have easily solved the problem. But that’s their policy. And, of course, had I simply shut up and hoped to get assistance from the cabin crew it probably would have gone my way (but because I HAD to sleep I wasn’t willing to risk it). And of course the doctor’s authority is paramount. And the engineers’ dogged determination to not be beaten by a simple tech problem is what techies do. But I must say that throughout, they never lost sight of the tired and bedraggled passenger, made sure I was okay, and never lost their cool.

Once on board, the first face that greeted me was that of the senior cabin attendant (are they still called pursers?) who insisted on ushering me to my seat, showing me proudly how they had sorted things out, and insisted on plugging in my CPAP himself to make sure it worked.  

The plane took off, I reclined my seat, connected my machine and the next thing I knew was being awakened as we were going to land shortly.


Darth Zeder and his wonky knee

So, just what were my special needs that were the cause of all this frivolity? Firstly, I have a serious (but, hopefully, temporary)-knee condition which means that I can’t bend my right knee more than 60 degrees – as against the normal seating position of 90 degrees. So I have to have the extra stretch room – if only in the aisle.

As it turns out, the seat-spacing on ElAl’s 767 plane is better than I am used to in Economy Class – so this turned out not to be as necessary as I had anticipated.

ElAl maskSecondly I am a chronic sufferer of sleep apnoea (I wake up, unknowingly, up to 70 times an hour due to my windpipe closing) and have for 15 years slept attached to a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine which attaches with a long tracheotomy-look-alike pipe to a scary-looking full face mask.

LEFT: My kids and grandchildren have thus nick-named me “Darth Zeder” - one look at the full-face mask I sleep in explains why!

The machine is tiny and silent, keeps blowing a small amount of air into my windpipe and more if it deems fit, and, here’s the rub, only works on electricity. No batteries. So, in the event of power outages or flying without a plug at the seat, I simply have to force myself to stay awake.

Will I fly ElAl again next time? Hell yeh! Not only were they great at what they do, they and came through with ‘flying’ colours!


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