I Lived Through That Weird Flight On El Al

November 21, 2018
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

I am sitting on an El Al plane on Friday afternoon flying in to Tel Aviv. We took off four and a half hours late due to a combination of reasons: it was the first snow fall of New York this season. When we finally boarded the plane, we were told by the captain that the crew had been late to arrive from Manhattan due to heavy traffic and we were still awaiting one more crew member. We waited.

Then the plane had to be “de-iced”.

Last, there was usual traffic to get in line for takeoff. We took off.

In the two and a half hours that we sat on the plane, questions were raised about whether we would land in Tel Aviv before sundown so as not to violate the Sabbath. Not just questions; screaming. The Israeli way. The resounding yelling was about taking off to get to Israel on time. Some requested to get off the plane and spend the Sabbath in New York but we had already left the gate. After much noise, the captain announced that since they were able to change the route to a faster one, the flight would take only nine hours and we would arrive prior to the start of Shabbat. Still lots of commotion. Another announcement: this time by a passenger who had somehow taken on the role of “rabbi on board”. He announced that everything is fine, he has heard the plan, we will arrive in Israel before the start of Sabbath and everyone can relax.” We take off.

Baruch Hashem 🙂

Seven and a half hours later, we are awakened to a new plan:

“Ladies and gentlemen: due to headwinds, our flight time is longer than had been expected and we will therefore need to land in Athens. This plane cannot fly to Israel on the Sabbath and so other small planes will be coming from Israel to take those of you who wish to land in Israel today. Those who wish to stay in Athens for the Shabbat will deboard the plane first and be taken to hotels.”


People yelling, stewardesses trying to calm them down, explaining the decision came from top management and they are not responsible; crew members under attack and crying, it seems no one wants to land in Athens.

It’s very unpleasant and no one seems to want this. We are a captive audience, on a plane and no longer with any ability to determine our fate. No one asked us in New York if we preferred to fly direct to Israel (perhaps on another commercial airlines) nor did I consider that El Al may determine to take us on an additional detour through Athens airport, security and immigration clearance and all, for a six hour delay in order to avoid landing in Israel fifteen minutes into the Sabbath.

It sounds surreal but it is real.

One person tells me that the pilot told him we can continue to Israel and land in Israel at 16:14. There is talk about when the Shabbat starts: in Jerusalem at 16:10, in Tel Aviv at 16:20…..it’s clearly a very close call. But it is not the pilot’s decision. He announces that the decision was taken by the CEO of El Al.

I’m listening to religious Jews hovering above me and yelling:

“El Al has put us in a horrible, horrible situation”, they say, very seriously. “We will be breaking Sabbath no matter what and now we will be stuck in Athens. We land at 3:15 pm and “Shabbos” starts forty five minutes later. We are being forced to make a terrible decision. Who knows how long it will take to get out of the airport, through customs, where we will stay, how we will eat kosher food…the Shabbat will be violated no matter what.”

There are elderly people on this plane, confused and tired. There are cries of a woman who is scared of flying. “I took two valium to get on this plane, I am here with my small children, I can’t get on a small plane and we need to get home. Why are my needs not taken into account?” There are tourists who do not understand what is happening and are fully confused by the attempts at a rational explanation (perhaps because there isn’t one).

Many of the religious Jews that I hear say they prefer to land at 16:30 in Israel and spend Shabbat at the airport in Israel or walk to a nearby synagogue or neighborhood.

The religious man sitting next to me recognizes that this very act causes much more violation of the Sabbath than landing a few minutes late in Israel. “El Al is now bringing two small planes from and to Israel, that’s another two sets of crew that will fly and work on Sabbath,” he says.

The crew is equally frustrated and helpless.

In this unpleasant encounter, I could not find anyone who wanted to land in Athens, not even the ultra orthodox who seemed equally frustrated with the decision handed down.

That’s the law the crew tells us. We have no choice.

I can’t help but find irony in the words of an orthodox man standing over me, as people complain.

“What a Great Father we have….look at what he has done to us!” the man smiles.

And I wonder, who is this “Great Father” and what has He done?

I think most of us on the plane realize that this time it is El Al management.

I for one challenge the decision to play with my fate, with full disregard for the desire of the passengers, or the safety involved in an unplanned landing and an additional take off, and the economic cost to El Al, now a private company that should strive for profitability and for pleasing its passengers.

Six hours later, 7:30 pm and we are about to land in Tel Aviv. A final announcement from the new crew: Our luggage is waiting on carousel number 3 for us in Israel.

How did it get there before us?

The flight we disembarked in Athens, took the crew and flew to Israel before us! Indeed, they flew the plane back to Israel with crew and luggage after we deplaned. When we asked if this was what would happen, the crew told us they did not know. But as it happens, they need to get back to Israel as well and without us it is no longer a commercial airliner so it can fly to Israel with our luggage and the crew. No paid passengers allowed; Paid passengers on Shabbat, they told me, would make it “illegal”.

The plane and our crew flew to Israel with our luggage but we, the paying passengers, were delayed in Athens for three hours, made to stand in line and go through security and customs, wait on line for new boarding passes and put on a small plane that does not say “El Al” on it.

And to that I say to the CEO of El Al, Look at what you have done to us!”

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