El Al to investigate flight diverted to accommodate Sabbath observers


JERUSALEM (JTA) — El Al Airlines will set up a committee to study the events that led its flight from New York to Tel Aviv to stop in Athens in order to allow Sabbath-observant passengers to get off the plane.

El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin, who announced the plan to set up the committee in a letter to employees on Monday, said the airline also would investigate allegations that some passengers acted violently toward flight attendants.

The flight on Thursday was delayed by more than five hours due to bad weather and was racing the clock to get to Israel before the start of the Sabbath. Dozens of passengers had demanded that the plane return to the gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport so that they could disembark, but instead the plane took off.

It is unclear whether passengers, both religious and non-Sabbath observant, were violent toward the flight crew. Several accounts on social media and in blog posts have offered differing accounts of what occurred on the flight.

“We find ourselves not at our best — the polarizing discourse and the exchange of accusations,” Usishkin said in the letter according to Haaretz. “This is contrary to our principles and values as citizens of the state and as the national carrier flying the flag of Israel.”

Haaretz reported that El Al is estimated to have spent 1 million shekels, or about $270,000, to make the Athens stop. Some 150 passengers who disembarked were put up over Shabbat in a hotel next to the airport and their meals were arranged by the Chabad in Athens. The remaining passengers boarded a flight by the carrier Israir to Tel Aviv about three hours later. El Al has a policy of not flying on the Jewish Sabbath and major Jewish holidays.

A second flight that left New York that night had planned to divert to Rome but continued to Tel Aviv due to the medical condition of a passenger.

The process of deciding how to handle the flights “took place in a dynamic and developing reality that was not entirely controlled by the company,” Usishkin also said.

El Al apologized for causing any of its passengers “discomfort.”

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