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 DansDeals.com, 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 Expedia.com 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.”

Raisman, Down Under athletes soar among Jewish Olympians

Slideshow highlighting Aly Raisman‘s Olympics at bottom

U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman and athletes from Down Under were the story for Jewish sports fans at the London Olympics.

Raisman, who performs her floor routines to the melody of “Hava Nagilah,” won an individual gold medal on Tuesday in the floor exercise as well as a bronze on the balance beam after helping the U.S. women’s team take the gold last week.

Her bronze came after the U.S. lodged a protest against the original result. Raisman, 18, of Needham, Mass., had finished fourth, but the judges agreed to a rescoring, putting her in a tie with Romania’s Catalina Ponor. Under a tie-breaking procedure, Raisman took the medal with a higher execution score. Raisman defeated Ponor again in the floor exercise final.

Meanwhile, there was something good in the water for Jewish athletes from Down Under.

[Aly Raisman’s results: team / all-around / balance beam / floor exercise]

Nathan Cohen, who is Jewish, and his partner Joseph Sullivan won the men’s double sculls on Aug. 2 to give New Zealand its first gold medal of the London Olympics.  They rallied in the last 200 meters to overtake Italy’s Alessio Sartori and Romano Battisti with a time of 6 minutes, 31.67 seconds—1.13 seconds ahead of the Italians.

Australian kayaker Jessica Fox, 18, won a silver medal in the K-1 kayak slalom final. Her first Olympic medal followed a family tradition: Her mother, Myriam Jerusalmi Fox, won a bronze in the same race for France at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Her British father, Richard, finished fourth in the same event at the 1992 Olympics and was appointed coach of the Australian kayak team before the 2000 Sydney Games.

At midweek, New Zealand sailor Jo Aleh was in good position to win her first Olympic medal as her event headed into its final stretch. Aleh, whose parents, Shuki and Daniella, lived in Israel before moving to Auckland, and teammate Olivia Powrie are in first after eight of 10 races in the 470 event.

Two rounds remain—both on Wednesday—followed by a medal race, scheduled for Friday.

Aleh’s father has flown in from Israel to watch the final rounds, while her mother has arrived from New Zealand. Aleh has two half-siblings who both live in Israel, according to a report in The Forward. After the Olympics, the family is reportedly traveling there for her half-sister’s bat mitzvah celebration.

Australian sprinter Steven Solomon’s bid for a medal ended when he ran out of steam in the 400-meter final. Solomon trailed the pack on Monday night, finishing eighth in 45.14 seconds—his second fastest time and just 0.17 seconds off his landmark semifinal time.

The 19-year-old runner, who played soccer at the 2009 Maccabiah before taking up sprinting, heaped praise on his Jewish Ukrainian coach, 78-year-old Fira Dvoskina, who could not travel to London but was coaching him via Skype.

Israeli athletes were not faring well and, for the first time since 1988, seemed likely to return home without a medal.

Windsurfer Lee Korzits, Israel’s likely last hope for a medal, finished the medal race in ninth place, dropping from second place to sixth in the overall rankings. Shahar Tzuberi, the bronze medalist from Beijing, did not qualify for the medal event.

Also, Israeli judoka Arik Zeevi, who predicted he would win a medal at the London Olympics, lost his opening match. Dmitri Peters of Germany put Zeevi in a headlock in their 100 kg. match on Aug. 2, forcing the 35-year-old Israeli to tap out after 43 seconds, the Times of Israel reported. He had tears in his eyes as he left the mat.

Female judoka Alice Schlessinger, another Israeli medal hope, was eliminated early as well.

On Sunday, Israeli gymnast Alex Shatilov finished sixth in the floor exercise finals. Shatilov, 25, had finished 12th last week in the individual all-around final.

In an odd incident, Israeli sprinter Donald Sanford was forced to borrow running shoes, saying his had been stolen and that he did not have the opportunity to warm up. He argued unsuccessfully with the judges for more time and failed to advance out of the first round in the 400 meters, though he did run his personal best time of the season.

Meanwhile, French Olympic swimmer Fabien Gilot grabbed some attention with the Hebrew tattoo on his left arm that he said is a tribute to his late grandmother’s husband, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. Gilot, who is not Jewish, said the tattoo is dedicated to his family and honors Max Goldschmidt, who has been a major influence in his life, Ynet reported. The tattoo says, “I’m nothing without them.”

Gilot revealed the tattoo, which is on the inside of his left arm, after exiting the pool following his team’s gold medal-winning performance in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay.

Outside the competition, there was news as well. German Olympic rower Nadja Drygalla left the Olympic Village following claims that her boyfriend is a member of an extremist political party inspired by the Nazis. She had already finished competing at the Games as part of the women’s rowing eight team and reportedly left of her own accord after a 90-minute conversation with German officials.

Media reports said her boyfriend was a leading member of a regional National Socialist group, the Rostock National Socialists, and had worked in a state election for the far-right National Democratic Party. Germany’s intelligence agency describes the NDP as racist, anti-Semitic and inspired by the Nazis.

For more Olympics coverage, visit jewishjournal.com/olympics.