Friday, October 03, 2003

Ticket Prices That Are El Al

Sukkos is our most joyous holiday and this year there is an additional reason to celebrate because a great number of Jews have come to Israel for the chag. Flights were packed and hotel rooms, especially in Jerusalem, hard to get. Suicide bombers and the fear of terrorism have not been deterrents, as they were during the past three years of Intifada. Tourism is up by 50% in 2003, nearly all of it from the United States.

What’s more, a synagogue-based campaign urging more of us to go to Israel has just been launched with the attractive slogan, “I care. And I’m Going.” There is a powerful mood in the circles I travel in to demonstrate love and support for Israel by being there. This rise in tourism is certain to be a morale booster and also to boost Israel’s economy which has been in rotten shape.

Campaigns to lure customers usually provide an incentive, something like a special sale or a bonus. This is always true of airline attempts to attract passengers. The one for Israel is different because the appeal is emotional and also because it is accompanied by sharp increases in fares. For Sukkos, economy tickets on El Al ran as high as $1,500, which I believe is an all-time high. This is a strange way to reward loyalty and affection. I know what el al means; I didn’t know that the words referred to ticket prices.

There is a school of thought that insists that everything with the “Israel” label should be immune from criticism. If we accept this, we should also accept what Israel’s national airline does, even when what it does would not be tolerated elsewhere. There certainly is much to be grateful about El Al, notably its extraordinary security. But we have a right to kvetch about the reconfiguring of Boeings to squeeze in more seats than other airlines do and about a frequent flyer arrangement that can scarcely be fathomed and which frequently seems to be stacked against those who fly frequently. We also ought to be able to complain about protekzia in seat allocations and favoritism toward Israeli travelers who often pay less than American tourists for their tickets.

Worst of all is the recent experience with fares and indications that seats were deliberately held off the market as demand rose in order to drive up prices. That would be an improper business practice.

It’s true that El Al is adhering to the eternal economic rule of supply and demand. As demand rose in the recent period, supply remained stable or perhaps decreased as the Intifada resulted in some airlines curtailing flights to Israel. At best, this arrangement would be acceptable if there wasn’t a deliberate effort to manipulate the supply of seats.

Even without manipulation, there is something errant about applying the supply and demand formula. If the new campaign to promote tourism is successful, the formula would result in American Jews who go to Israel being forced to pay substantially higher fares because of the rising demand and the limited supply. It’s the obligation of those who are promoting this campaign to see that this does not happen.

Tourism (along with charitable giving) is vital to Israel’s economic well-being. Those who come are, for the most part, spenders in hotels, shops, restaurants and wherever else they can be made to part with their dollars and they directly affect thousands of essentially small businesses and benefit hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Few countries rely as heavily as Israel does on tourism, which is why the fair pricing of airline tickets is more than a matter of fares but an issue that is important to the country. If the laws of economics apply to Israel, the high cost of travel will ultimately be a disincentive to some.

For Sukkos and throughout the year, the Orthodox whom we are told are fewer than ten percent of U.S. Jews constitute by a substantial margin a disproportionately large share of tourists, whether they come for a few days or, as is true for yeshiva and seminary students, for a year or longer, serving thereby as magnets for their parents to make the trip. We hear frequently about how a major event or a sports team is important to the local economy. I suppose that we cannot figure out how much Orthodox visitors contribute to Israel’s economy. The sum must be tremendous and usually disproportionate to the number of American Jews who are Orthodox. It expands considerably if we include the American Orthodox who have made aliya throughout nearly the entirety of Israel’s existence, again disproportionate to their numbers in the U.S.

We can also factor in the amount of charity that flows from the Orthodox outside of Israel into the coffers of literally hundreds and perhaps thousands of religiously-oriented Israeli institutions and causes.

What emerges from this is a picture that is sharply in variance with the big lie promoted by journalists and others that the Orthodox and especially charedim are parasites who take from the State and who give very little in return. There is much that can legitimately be argued about in charedi life, including military service for men and the need for better career training. But whatever the shortcomings of charedim – or for that matter any other group – there is no justification for the lies that have come to be part of the vernacular of secular oriented Jews as they speak about those who are fervently religious.

It’s noteworthy that even as the Intifada drove many thousands of American Jews away from Israel, the yeshiva and seminary students kept coming, the Orthodox who made aliya remained and an even higher percentage of tourists were religious Jews. These are truths that need to be recognized, for truth’s sake and also in order to properly understand Israel’s economy.