Airline stresses it doesn’t condemn passengers, some of whom were accused of violence, or the cabin crew, who faced concerns plane would land after day of rest started
El Al Israel Airlines said Monday it will compensate all of the passengers on a recent flight from New York that was diverted to Athens over fears that it would not reach Tel Aviv before the start of Shabbat, a potential violation of the Jewish day of rest.
The national airline said it will give a round-trip ticket to any destination in Europe to each of the 400 passengers on the flight, which grabbed headlines earlier this month due to allegations that religious passengers were abusive to cabin crew.
El Al initially accused religious passengers of physically and verbally assaulting the crew, but then appeared to walk back the claims following vehement denials and threats of a boycott from the ultra-Orthodox community.
In a statement Monday, the airline stressed that it does “not put the blame on the secular, religious, or ultra-Orthodox public in the reported incidents.”
Last week, a group of 180 passengers on board the diverted flight filed a complaint letter with El Al, demanding NIS 50,000 ($13,000) each in compensation and an apology from the airline. The letter sent through attorneys claimed that airline staff “deliberately lied to passengers and disrespected them,” and had spread false rumors about the ultra-Orthodox community.
El Al’s flight 002 to Tel Aviv on November 15 was delayed by more than five hours due to bad weather and was racing against the clock to leave with enough time to get to Israel before the start of Shabbat. Dozens of passengers had demanded that the plane return to the gate at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport so that they could disembark, but instead the plane took off.
The plane was eventually diverted to Athens, where it landed before the start of Shabbat on Friday night. Passengers spent the weekend in Greece before another flight brought them to Israel on Sunday.
Religious passengers pushed back against the reports of physical violence on board, accusing El Al staff of causing one of the delays, and saying that the cabin crew had falsely told them they would be allowed to disembark and that the plane would make it to Israel on time.
Several accounts on social media and in blog posts have offered differing reports of what occurred on the flight.
On Sunday a prominent Israeli rabbi demonstrated in front of the EL AL offices at Ben Gurion airport, where he cut up his frequent flyer card.
Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotzkin, who was on board the flight, had already threatened El Al with a boycott unless the airline issued a full apology for alleging that ultra-Orthodox passengers violently attacked crew members during the flight.
Sorotzkin, head of the Beit Shemesh-based Ateres Shlomo yeshiva network, sent a letter last Friday to El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin in which he accused the airline of “insulting and disrespecting” religious passengers, and said the airline had until Sunday night to issue a “clear apology” and offer restitution to those involved, or he would endorse another airline to his community.
Following the flight, El Al initially issued a statement saying it would not tolerate violence toward its staff, and said the company intended to file a complaint against at least one passenger.
But on Tuesday, Usishkin reportedly denied that the passengers were violent, telling Sorotzkin that he himself had never alleged that the crew was attacked violently. According to the Israel Hayom daily, Usishkin told the rabbi that “there was no physical violence” on the flight.
On Friday, crew members slammed Usishkin for refuting their claims of violence.
By Toi Staff
JTA contributed to this report.