El Al blames COVID’s impact on airlines for shuttering Toronto: spokesman

(Photo via elal.com)

El Al Israel Airlines blames the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on airline companies for its decision this week to suspend direct service to Toronto.

A company spokesman in New Jersey, who did not wish his name used, told The CJN on Friday that he didn’t know the specific reason why Toronto is being cut from the El Al schedule as of Oct. 28.

However, he did say that “the airline industry is in turmoil” and “just trying to get their sea legs back and El Al is no different.”

The company would not give on-the-record interviews, nor comment on whether the schedule changes were made due to an ongoing labour dispute with El Al pilots that has created a staffing shortage, or other reasons, such as the price of landing fees at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Media reports out of Israel said El Al was also cutting out direct service to Warsaw and Brussels.

The spokesman said El Al would certainly “like to stay in Toronto and in the Canadian market.”

However, “as a continuing consequence of the pandemic, EL AL, like many other airlines, has been forced to reduce its flying from pre-COVID levels,” the company said, in a written statement.

When asked whether El Al was aware of efforts by the Canadian Jewish community to protest the decision to indefinitely suspend service to Canada, the spokesman said he had no comment.

News of El Al’s decision began trickling out through travel agencies earlier this week, but the company did not make a formal announcement. The decision was confirmed on June 21 by the Canadian general manager, Dinah Kutner, who said the airline was leaving it up to local staff to inform travel agents and the community.

“It’s encouraging to see the reaction in the community,” Kutner said Thursday, in response to Jewish leaders and El Al fans who began an online petition on Change.org launched by a Toronto insurance agent Asaf Halperin.

By late Friday, his petition had garnered over 3,600 signatures.

“It’s very important to me that El Al is still part of our community,” Halperin, 49, told The CJN Daily.

He was born in Israel and moved to Canada when he was 16.

“Because El Al is safety, El Al is Hebrew, El Al is security, El Al is our flag in international airports.”

While Halperin doesn’t exclusively fly on El Al when he travels back and forth to Israel—he alternates with Air Canada—he feels that the airline’s legendary security protocols and in-flight air marshals make it the safer choice for Jewish travellers in today’s world.

Of nearly 30 Toronto based El Al staff who will be impacted by the closure of the Canadian office this fall, 20 are members of the airline’s security team.

“At the end of the day, it’s getting less and less safe for Jews to live abroad, so giving up this aspect, for me, I don’t know, it makes me a bit more scared because I don’t know what kind of measures Air Canada is going to take now that El Al is not here, “ Halperin said.

Asaf Halperin says El Al is the safer choice for Jews to fly to Israel. (Ellin Bessner photo).

The airline promised to communicate shortly with all passengers who have bought tickets for flights departing after Oct. 27, or with their travel agents, to offer alternative arrangements.

“Previously ticketed passengers will have the option of being rerouted on El Al via the U.S., obtaining a travel voucher for use on future flights, or receiving a full refund for the impacted flights,” the company said in a statement.

The airline will offer connections to Israel either through the U.S. or Europe, with partner airlines.

“I mean, we’re going to lose the Kachol ve lavan, the blue and white symbol,” Halperin said. “So it’s a big loss. It’s a very big loss, I think, to the Jewish community.”

The CJN from 1986 when El Al began direct service to Toronto.

El Al began direct flight service to Toronto from Tel Aviv in the spring of 1986. Service to Montreal started in 1971, but was discontinued in the 2000s. In 2019, 100,000 Canadian passengers travelled to Israel, before the pandemic grounded all international travel, according to the Israel government tourist office at the Toronto consulate.

The head of Toronto’s UJA Federation, Adam Minsky contacted El Al after the news broke earlier this week, to convey the community’s reaction to the decision to cancel direct service after all these years.

According to UJA Toronto spokesman Steve McDonald, Minsky told El Al he was “hearing from community members who are disappointed, and expressing our hope that there will be an opportunity for the airline to reconsider,” he said in a message to The CJN.

El Al schedule from 1971 shows service to Montreal.

Internal labour troubles at El Al combined with staffing shortages—when the company carried out mass layoffs during the pandemic—have forced the privately-owned airline to abruptly cancel dozens of flights to Europe from Tel Aviv this past week. As well, Asaf Halperin said his contacts in the company told him the fleet is down a couple of airplanes. These three factors combined to cause chaos and long lineups at the Ben Gurion airport.

El Al’s Canadian manager said they have not completely given up their landing rights at Toronto’s international airport, just suspended them indefinitely. The Greater Toronto Airports Authority did not return calls about how much it was charging El Al to use Terminal 3, or what challenges the airline would have should it wish to resume flights to Toronto in the future.

“I really do hope that El Al will come back and be strong and we can give Canadians the service they deserve,” said Kutner, who has run the Canadian operations for 11 years.