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Snafu sends Israel travelers flying on air with low-priced tickets

A computer glitch in travel agency websites helped thousands to book El Al flights from the U.S. to Israel at an extremely low cost.   (Kayak screenshot/ Mark Tang via CC)

A computer glitch in travel agency websites helped thousands to book El Al flights from the U.S. to Israel at an extremely low cost. (Kayak screenshot/ Mark Tang via CC)

NEW YORK (JTA) — 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.

Despite the cheap fares having been offered in error, El Al said Monday via Twitter that 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.

“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.”

However, on Tuesday, the airline appeared to backtrack, suggesting in in a comment to The New York Jewish Week and later in emails to JTA that it was unclear whether or not El Al would honor the purchases. A spokesperson said Wednesday on Twitter that a decision about the fares had not yet been finalized.

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 travel 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.”

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.”

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