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  • Ari Sacher

Civil Air Disruption

Civil Air Disruption: Last week my daughter-in-law’s grandmother died in New York City. Fortunately, my daughter-in-law’s parents were in New York at the time. The funeral took place on Friday, and their plans were to fly home to Israel on Sunday. (Jews keep one week of severe mourning called “Shiva” in which they are visited and comforted by their friends and neighbors). The problem was that in order to do this, they had to move forward their flight from JFK to Tel Aviv by one week. It would have been easier for them to swim back to Tel Aviv. I found them flights connecting through Paris, which they gladly took, at the low-low price of an additional thousand dollars a ticket.

Why is it so difficult to find tickets from North America to Israel? The October 7 Massacre was accompanied by a salvo of rockets to Israel’s heartland. Targets included Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV). While most of the rockets were intercepted by Iron Dome and David’s Sling, all international airlines immediately canceled all flights into Tel Aviv and scrambled to get their aircraft that were parked at TLV out of Israel. Flights from North America that were already in the air were diverted. United Airlines flight 954 left San Francisco International Airport on October 6 and diverted over Greenland about seven hours into the more than 13-hour-long journey. The flight would later return to San Francisco. “The safety of our customers and crews is our top priority,” the airline said in a statement. “We are closely monitoring the situation and we are adjusting flight schedules as required.” The only airline that remained flying – and has remained flying ever since – was El Al Israel Airlines. 

Free-market economics is driven by supply and demand – the greater the demand, the higher the prices. On October 6, four airlines carried passengers between Israel and North America:

  1. United Airlines with two daily flights to Newark, one daily flight to San Francisco, four times a week to Chicago, and three times a week to Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C.,

  2. Delta Airlines with two daily flights to JFK Airport in New York City,

  3. American Airlines with one daily flight to JFK (American had recently canceled its daily flight to Miami due to low load factors), and

  4. Air Canada with one daily flight to Toronto and a biweekly flight to Montreal.

From October 7, the only flights to North America were via El Al: Two daily flights to Newark, four flights to JFK, one flight to Los Angeles, one flight to Miami, and four times a week to Boston. Roughly speaking, the number of daily seats to North America was slashed by fifty percent. The result was a significant price hike. For example, pre-October 7 round-trip prices from Tel Aviv to Newark were about $1,000 for Economy Class and about $3,000 for Business Class. The price of the same round-trip ticket in June 2024 is about $4,000 for Economy Class and nearly $14,000 for Business Class. While El Al has been accused of price gouging, the market sets its own prices, and El Al is benefiting from that market. Unsurprisingly, El Al has been recording record profits: El Al earned a net $39.7 million in the October-to-December period, up from $8.5 million a year earlier, while revenue rose to $678.8 million from $570.7 million, pushing its shares up some 5%.

Why did the airlines cease flying to Israel? A number of factors are in play. Some factors are economical, and some factors are psychological. First, the airlines were concerned about their aircraft. Flying multi-million dollar aircraft and tens of crew into an airport that is under the threat of rocket fire is fraught with risk and carries a heavy insurance premium. Second, the crew might not want to fly in and out of the countries they deem dangerous. This is even more problematic on routes to and from North America where the crew must take a number of rest days in-country before returning home. (The European airlines typically fly what they refer to as “quickies,” flying in and out of Israel with the same crew, spending as little as one hour on the ground). Finally, the number of tourists flying to Israel during wartime is typically a fraction of the number during peacetime.

By February 2024, rockets had not been fired on Ben Gurion for more than three months, and airlines began to consider returning to Israel. The first airlines to return were European airlines in the Lufthansa Group (Lufthansa, Swiss, and Austrian). Air France and British Airways quickly followed suit. On February 26, United Airlines became the first North American airline to announce its return to Israel in March with one flight a day from Newark. This flight would be a late afternoon flight that would land in Israel in the morning and return to Newark after a two-hour stay on the ground. (The late night flight to Tel Aviv spends about 7 hours on the ground in Israel, increasing the risk to aircraft from rocket fire). The inauguration of service was delayed until April for unknown reasons.

And then came the events of April 13, when the Iranians fired close to 350 kamikaze drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles into Israel. While less than 1% of the threats hit their targets, the message was heard loud and clear: Israel is not a safe place to fly to. Tourists canceled their trips for the Passover season, and airlines once again ceased flying to Israel. The European airlines returned after only a week, the effect on North American carriers was far more pronounced.

  • Air Canada, who had planned on restarting flights in June, canceled all flights until late August.

  • United suspended its return until May 10 so that it could perform a “security assessment.” In a statement reported by Reuters, the airline said: “We continue to closely monitor the situation and will make decisions on all upcoming flights with a focus on the safety of our customers and crews." May 10 has come and gone, and United is still not flying to Israel. A June return date is now being considered.

  • Delta confirms to DansDeals, a popular website for bargains that caters to the Jewish consumer, that “there has been no change to the June 7 start date. We of course continue to evaluate, as always, but that remains the current plan as of now.”

Perhaps more concerning is an announcement by KLM Dutch Airlines, an airline currently flying to Israel, that it plans to cancel all flights for the entire summer season from July 1 until at least August 31. In the summer, airplanes flying in and out of Israel typically fly at 100% capacity. To willingly forego this kind of profit is indicative of skyrocketing insurance rates and panic-stricken crew.

Is there something that can be done to change the situation? The decision of government-owned European airlines can be biased by their respective governments. Since U.S. airlines are privately-owned for-profit companies and because their decisions are based upon purely economic considerations, the government cannot force them to fly where it is not economically feasible to do so. Incentivization in the form of reduced insurance premiums might be considered, but at the end of the day, no one can force an airline crew to stay in a country where they do not feel safe. Until the situation changes, El Al will continue to reap the benefits, and the Israeli consumer – along with any remaining foreign tourists – will pay through the nose.

Good Things,

Ari Sacher

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