Hungarian airline opens low-cost Budapest-Tel Aviv line

The Hungarian airline Wizz Air started operating low-cost regular flights from Budapest to Tel Aviv.

The maiden flight took off on Dec. 6 from Budapest with 175 passengers, Wizz Air said in a statement. Fares are available from $70 and can be booked online.

The first flight featured a fashion show at 30,000 feet with six Russian models strutting in the aisles wearing fairy tale-themed clothes designed by Frau Blau, an Israeli fashion house.

“The idea was to have the first flight bring Israeli culture, via fashion, to Hungary,” said Rebecca Mandel of Bottom Line Consulting, the Tel Aviv-based PR agency that organized the show.

Noaz Bar, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, said he was confident the new service, which is starting with four flights a week, would increase the number of tourists visiting Israel.

Wizz Air said it plans to start operating a daily flight in June.

According to Chabad Budapest, thousands of Israeli tourists visit Hungary every year. The city has a community of approximately 1,000 Israeli expats and businessmen that divide their time between the two countries.

El Al to honor cheap tickets to Israel from glitch

El Al Airlines said it will honor all tickets purchased during a glitch that had thousands of round-trip tickets selling for as low as $330.

The airline also announced Thursday that those who purchased tickets three days earlier at the hugely discounted fare would be given the opportunity to convert their tickets to a direct flight provided by El Al for an additional $75 each way rather than fly with a codeshare partner with a connecting flight in Europe.

“Although a review of this occurence has not been finalized, a decision was made to accommodate El Al passengers who purchased these low fares because we value our reputation of offering excellent customer service,” said Danny Saadon, El Al’s vice president of North America, in a statement released Thursday. “Hopefully we have provided an opportunity to many first timers to visit Israel as well as reconnect family and friends.”

A full refund without penalty also will be offered to passengers who wish to cancel their ticket.

The glitch was the result of a third party subcontracted by El Al to post the Israeli airline’s winter promotional fares online. According to El Al, the discounted airfares were the result of the subcontractor failing to add the fuel surcharge to the total price.

In an interview Thursday with JTA, Saadon took credit for pitching the idea to honor the fares to El Al President and CEO Elyezer Shkedy, but said the decision for the direct flight add-on was Shkedy’s.

“If we’re honoring passengers’ tickets, let’s also offer them an opportunity to fly with El Al, and make life easier for families that might lose baggage and lose a connection,” Saadon said in explaining the company’s rationale behind the add-on offer.

On Tuesday, the day after the glitch set off a three-hour buying frenzy, an El Al spokesperson told The New York Jewish Week that the status of tickets purchased during the frenzy was “unclear.” The position was reinforced Wednesday by a follow-up statement posted to the company’s Twitter feed.

“Thanks for your patience,” the tweet read. “Details/decisions re incorrect fares that were briefly sold on Monday are not finalized.”

The wavering was in contrast to two separate Twitter posts on Monday afternoon that pledged to honor the tickets. Saadon in the JTA interview acknowledged that the company’s posts via Twitter on Monday may have been a contributing factor in the decision to honor the tickets.

“Once we said it, we may as well follow our word,” Saadon said.

The decision to honor was “mainly to save face with El Al,” he said. “We’re talking about thousands of passengers. Most are customers anyways, they just took advantage of a ticket that was available at a low price. We’d rather keep them flying with El Al without disappointing them.”

To minimize exposure to similar glitches in the future, Saadon said that El Al will review fares before they are posted online and maintain a buffer of two hours before the process is finalized.

“I’m very pleased with the decision we made,” he said. “Our customers are very important to us and we want them to fly El Al.”

Due to snafu, tickets to Israel go on sale for as little as $330

Two months ago, Miriam Leichtling’s parents lost their jobs within a week of each other.

For several months, Leichtling, a New York designer who has led several organized trips to Israel, had been agonizing over how to scrape together enough money to send her parents, ages 66 and 71, to Israel. But the cost of airfare for three – normally starting at about $1,000 per ticket, with a layover—was prohibitive.

“My parents were teachers who worked hard all their lives,” Leichtling said. “Whatever extra they had went to sending their kids through Jewish schools.”

Then, on Monday, she got an email from a neighborhood friend alerting her that round-trip tickets to Israel were on sale for under $400. At first, Leichtling, like many others who got the news, couldn’t believe it.

“The subject line said ‘tickets to Israel under $400.’ It looked like spam; I normally don’t bother with these things,” she said.

But it was no hoax.

Due to an error by a subcontractor handling El Al’s winter promotional fares, flights to Israel from a few U.S. cities, including New York, Boston and Chicago, on Israel’s national airline and codeshare partners were selling for as low $330. Many other tickets from November through March were available for less than $460, including all taxes and fees. The snafu affected El Al codeshare flights routed through a number of European cities and was available for several hours on Monday.

“On a daily basis, any published airfare consists of the basic fare, a fuel surcharge and taxes,” El Al later said in a statement. “In this situation, the fuel surcharge was omitted.”

When bargain websites began alerting readers to the fares, a buying frenzy ensued.

“It eventually took my entire server down,” said Daniel Eleff, founder and owner of the bargain hunting website, which posted an item about the fares around 11 a.m. “A hundred thousand people tried accessing the site within a couple of hours.”

Word of mouth, Facebook and Twitter fueled the buying spree.

James Lapin, a grant manager at Columbia University, saw the deal posted at 12:15 p.m. on the Twitter account @YeahThatsKosher run by Jewish blogger and social media professional Dani Klein. He went to and booked a flight.

“My wife is actually the one that is subscribed to airfare alerts but usually more for domestic flights since going to Israel is so out of our price range,” Lapin said.

For Lapin, as for many others who have not visited Israel in years, the fare presented a unique opportunity to make a trip they otherwise could not afford.

“The last time I was there was right after I got married more than 10 years ago,” Lapin said. “My three kids have never been and I had been bemoaning the fact that we weren’t able to go. I was actually thinking of saving up just to send my wife with one of them.”

Despite the cheap fares having been offered in error, El Al said it would honor the tickets, which reportedly numbered in the thousands.

“An outside company posted incorrect fares on travel websites, so all tickets sold will indeed be honored,” the company wrote via Twitter at around 6 p.m. Monday, when the inexpensive prices were no longer available.

This is not the first time in recent years there have been super-cheap flights to Israel. In July 2010, US Airways offered a promotional fare from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv for $278. But tickets for that promotion were limited to 30 seats.

David Zimet, 24, an airfare enthusiast and social media team leader for Domino’s Pizza, managed to book two tickets that time. On Monday, when the tickets seem unlimited, he wasn’t fast enough.

But Leichtling and many others were. “My friend purchased 19 tickets for her whole family; they go every six weeks,” Leichtling said.

She was able to buy tickets for herself and her parents for a total of $1,259 – slightly more than a third of what it normally costs to make the trip in late December.

“I must have cried four times just thinking about taking my parents to the Western Wall,” Leichtling said. “This is an opportunity that never ever would have presented itself any other way.”