El Al’s decision to stop operating flights out of Toronto, effective Oct. 27, 2022, is a serious blow to the tourism industry still recovering from a pandemic that restricted travel, says an Israeli diplomat in Canada.
Gal Hana, the Israeli consul of tourism for Canada, says his office had been in touch with the airline over the last few weeks. At first, it appeared that there were only going to be staff reductions in Toronto, but that flights weren’t at risk.
“When we understood the (Toronto-Tel Aviv) route was being compromised, we reached out to the New York office and tried to advocate against it. The route was very successful in 2019 and there is no reason it won’t be in 2022 and especially in 2023. We see bookings are already up,” Hana said.
In 2019, pre-pandemic, 100,000 Canadians travelled to Israel. The goal was to increase that by 10 percent in 2023, but that figure will be “compromised” by El Al’s decision, he said.
Canada is an important market for Israeli tourism: Canadians tend to visit more often, stay longer and spend more money than other tourists.
“We see that demand is really bouncing back and the biggest obstacle is the shortage of flights.”
The market has also expanded beyond Jewish and other faith-based travellers to a younger demographic who are looking at Israel as a fun and novel place to visit. The recent Abraham Accords have also “raised a lot of interest” in trips from Israel to Dubai and Bahrain.
As a private company, El Al is focused solely on the bottom line, Hana points out.
“They think that shifting their fleet into the U.S. will gain them more revenue. I think otherwise. I think Toronto is a good gateway and it serves also many U.S. cities in the region.”
The airline has not made a formal announcement that it will no longer operate in Canada. The company stopped flying out of Montreal in the early 2000s.
“There is no press release, it’s just going to be ad hoc. I’m speaking directly to the community leaders and to our clientele,” Dinah Kutner, the general manager for El Al in Canada, said in an interview with The CJN Daily host Ellin Bessner.
Nine people work at El Al’s Toronto’s office and 20 work in security at Pearson International Airport.
“This is an indefinite suspension, which means we don’t know when and if we will come back. We certainly hope so,” Kutner said.
El Al is also relocating its U.S. headquarters from New York City to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Air Canada is the only other airline offering direct flights to Israel from Canada. Travellers who wish to fly El Al after October would need to connect through the United States or Europe
The Israeli airline has been suffering financial losses for several years, which were exacerbated during COVID.
In July 2020, Eli Rozenberg, a New York-born 27-year-old yeshiva student, became the controlling shareholder of the company. The $107-million bid to buy a 43-per-cent share of El Al came from his father, Kenny Rozenberg, CEO of a chain of U.S. nursing homes. The older Rozenberg has since made aliyah and joined his son controlling the airline.
Although it is no longer officially the national airline of Israel, El Al’s decision to withdraw from Canada has been an emotional blow those in the travel industry.
“I was shocked. It was like somebody just announced that somebody died that I know,” said Ornan Sharaby, CEO of IBMT Tours in Toronto.
“It’s very a sad thing to see our icon—the only Israeli airline—leave,” he said.
El Al has been in Toronto for more than 40 years, and the route was very profitable. Flights out of Toronto have been full and even overbooked lately. But a recent decision to operate out of Boston, means that planes have been diverted there even though the market is smaller, he said.
As a Jewish-Israeli, Sharaby says he felt proud to see the flag on El Al’s planes and the service was “fantastic.”
But beyond emotion, he is also concerned that El Al’s departure will mean that Air Canada has no competition on direct flights to Israel—and that ticket prices will soar.
Sharaby expects that El Al will eventually return to the lucrative Toronto market, but they may have trouble getting back into Pearson airport, since there is a waiting list for space in the international Terminal 3.
“This is unbelievable. I am still thinking they’re going to reverse their decision,” he said.
Meanwhile, an online petition to keep El Al in Toronto had more than 1,800 signatures a day after it was launched, with many people commenting that they felt safer flying with El Al, which has stringent security precautions.
Next year, which marks Israel’s 75th anniversary, promises to be a banner year for Israeli tourism, with numerous groups—including UJA Federation of Greater Toronto—planning trips to commemorate the occasion.
But the El Al decision is unlikely to impact the UJA trip.
While missions do book blocks of seats on Air Canada and El Al, most people don’t travel that way, preferring to book directly to use points or to extend their trip by travelling through Europe or the United States, said Steve McDonald, vice-president of communications for UJA.