THE TRAVEL ADVISOR: Passions and purgatory

Hell, in many religious and folkloric traditions, is a place or state of torment. Religions with a linear divine history often depict hells as eternal destinations while religions with a cyclic history often depict a hell as an intermediary period between existences. Typically these traditions locate hell in another dimension or under the Earth’s surface with afterlife destinations such as Heaven. Others opine it can be found 35,000 feet in the air in a metal bird soaring through the skies.

If you’re an airline passenger of a certain age, you remember what it was like in those years before deregulation and Open Skies. You remember the expansive legroom (36 inches from seat back to back rest!), the empty middle seats (the typical plane was around 60% full), the hot meals (served with metal knives and forks), and the lack of fees, even the ease with which you could glide from the ticket counter to the airplane (far less security).

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Though the airline industry lost its sheen of glamour many years ago, flying was still more pleasant than not. It has been five years since Israel’s Open Skies agreement with the EU came into effect. The goal was to increase the number of foreign airlines operating in the country, expand the number of routes served, lower fares and to stimulate tourism.

The inimitable spirit of business has always been an ambition to do big things: to build something valuable, to provide a useful service or to solve a difficult problem.

At its essence, the aviation industry is about human endeavor. And for humans to endeavor together there must be an animated ethos and ethic of endeavor. But it’s getting harder for the aviation leaders to foster this ethos, and to lead through it on the way to doing big things. That’s because they’re trying to do so in a world that is not just rapidly changing, but in one that has been dramatically reshaped.

The Open Skies agreement with the European Union began operation in the summer of 2013. It opened Israeli carriers up to competition from European airlines by lifting restrictions on foreign companies and restrictions on the extent of operations from certain airports. The goal was to increase the number of foreign airlines operating in Israel and boost the frequency of flights.

It was nothing less than a revolution.

While El Al, Arkia and Israir were vocal in their objection to the aviation reform measures, European counterparts were quick to take advantage of the changes. In the time since the agreement was ratified, the number of airlines, flights and destinations has surged. The Israeli airlines tried every trick to block it-from wailing and whining flight schedules at Ben-Gurion Airport to demonstrating outside the Knesset.

They claimed they would be ruined and that tens of thousands of people would lose their jobs.

To soften opposition from Israeli airlines, the reform was put into effect in stages over five years; a period that has ended. Now, most of the constraints on foreign airlines have been lifted; there are no more restrictions on code sharing or seat capacity on given routes.

Israeli airlines are still not completely happy; although Open Skies gives them equal footing with European carriers because of Israel’s unique and unusually strict security requirements. This resistance has manifested itself with non-European airlines; witness El Al’s recent appeal to Israel’s highest court to try to cease Air India’s flying over Saudi Arabia.

Maintaining full reciprocity is impossible because the Israeli airlines need to maintain safety and security standards that the others don’t. Ergo the Israeli companies furtive plea that they need help to stay competitive.

According to figures from the Transportation Ministry, the total number of scheduled international departure seats from Israel grew by 50% since the Open Sky Agreement. Low-cost carriers entering the market have been a major driver for this growth. Although EasyJet started serving Israel in 2009 with a route from Luton, the British airline’s total available capacity has risen from 293,760 seats in 2012 – the year before Open Skies – to 830,176 in 2017. There are now 147 weekly flights from the 3 largest low-cost carriers, EasyJet, Wizz Air and Ryanair.

While is clear, is that Open Skies has transformed Israel’s international network, but further reform would be needed to shake-up its domestic market, currently dominated by Arkia and Israir.

However, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz – an instrumental figure in forging the EU agreement – is understood to be considering whether to allow foreign airlines to operate domestic routes between Tel Aviv and Eilat and set up bases in the country.

But oh, have passengers re-learned an old lesson: You get what you pay for! The airlines, realizing that they’d never make money in a deregulated environment with only 60% of their seats filled, shrank their fleets even as they accommodated more passengers. By 2017, the industry-wide load factor had increased to nearly 85%, and the empty middle seat was rare.

While the vast majority of fliers are feeling the squeeze with tighter and tighter economy seats (I’m looking at you, United Airlines) and downright frightening customer- service disasters (American & United), we might well be witnessing the dawn of a new golden age of travel in the business-class section.

Now a standard fixture on most planes— both the jumbo jets that regularly traverse oceans as well as the single-aisle planes that make domestic short hops—business class first debuted a mere 40 years ago. British Airways created a “Club Class” between first and coach back in 1978, while Qantas coined the actual term “business class” a year later. The next 10 years will alter the way business class existed. That ethos to innovate will alter and shatter the norm.

One glimpse into what this future will look like already exists. Though it won’t debut on commercial flights until 2019 at the earliest, the Waterfront seat is the result of a collaboration among seat manufacturer B/E Aerospace, design firms Teague and Formation Design Group, and technology giant Panasonic. The physical seat is based on existing models from B/E, but Waterfront’s technology sets this iteration apart.

The showpiece is a 24-inch, 4K ultrahigh- definition entertainment system, to which passengers will connect via an app on their smartphones or with a provided in-seat tablet. Using their phones, passengers will be able to control everything: seat positioning, ambient lighting (there are more than 16 million possible settings), climate control of the seat’s various sectors, ordering meals and drinks, and creating entertainment playlists.

Passengers can illuminate a Do Not Disturb sign or set a wake-up call for the crew to rouse them based on when they want to rest. The system will remember their preferences from flight to flight within an airline network, and their settings will automatically be available. The entire point of the seat and all its technological bells and whistles is to allow passengers to tailor the entire flight experience to their individual inclinations.

The blend of physical and psychological components is also evident in Qatar Airways’ new Qsuites. The new seats possess up-to-the-minute features like closing doors and adjustable entertainment monitors. However, the aspect that turned the most heads is that seats in the center of the cabin can be combined into private suites for meetings or meals, and some can be converted to double beds.

Business-class travel has evolved into a singular activity, separating people from their traveling companions more and more. Elements of customization and control were also the guiding directives behind Delta’s forthcoming business-class suites, which fliers should start seeing on the airline’s new A350s later this year. The suites have roughly the same dimensions as Delta’s current Delta One seats, but the major difference is that each will have its own closing door.

Business Customers first and foremost want more privacy. Thus closing doors, as well as higher walls and sliding privacy screens between center seats, all of which passengers can also leave open. The suites’ other improvements include new dedicated stowage spaces for personal items and more surface area, including an innovative two-tier shelf next to the seat where passengers can stow an electronic device. Fliers should also notice high-tech touches including customizable ambient lighting, faster Wi-Fi, and a new in-flight entertainment system that they can watch on larger 18-inch monitors. The overall goal is to create a residential feel where customers have a spacious, private area that’s their own, whether they want to work, rest, relax, or dine.

Airlines still need to focus on both the corporate market and the leisure market. Alitalia recently divvied up its workforce to address these two disparate markets accordingly. No more will a Vice President of Sales be responsible for both markets; one will focus on the corporate client a role still heavily surfaced by travel agents while his compatriot will do battle for the leisure market, realizing that social media and the Internet seek out the least expensive product and increasing the coffers of the low-cost carriers.

El Al has decided she too will go jump head first into the leisure market place on its European routes with its latest product: Fly Your Way.

Starting October 15th, all flights to Europe will be marketed with three distinct classes: Lite, Classic & Flex. While not light on details, their Lite class has been created to go after the low-cost carriers now deeply entrenched in Israel. With a non-refundable, no change fee policy and a very inexpensive one-way fare, El Al is hoping that its vaunted security and the realization that El Al flies to major airports throughout Europe will cease the rapid loss of their customer base to the low-cost carriers.

Its Classic fare will still exist to fulfill its regular clientele while the Flex fare is a feeble attempt to curry favor with those rare clients that require an economy class at an outrageous fare. It will offer no cancellation fees, unlimited change fees and better seats in the economy section. It’s a very limited market more often sold when the loser classes are unavailable. Veteran readers will know that I share little optimism in El Al’s ability to attract low-cost clientele as El Al’s fixed costs, its labor force, coupled with the rise of airline fuel leaves it vulnerable to being severely underpriced by its competitors.

Still, El Al has invested a lot of money in their concept and one can only hope that Fly Your Way doesn’t lead their clients to decide that flying their way means flying on another airline. That would result in a new definition of hell for El Al’s senior management team.

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments: mark.feldman@ ziontours.co.il.