A Los Angeles rabbi who lives in Israel and travels often to his US congregation said El Al prefers to bump passengers from minority sectors such as haredim from overbooked flights instead of other passengers.
Rabbi R. travels every year during the Ten Days of Repentance to his Los Angeles congregation and ordered tickets to return home immediately following Yom Kippur six months in advance.
However, just before the flight took off, Rabbi R. discovered he would not be on the plane after all. His son told Israeli haredi news site Kikar HaShabbat that “when he arrived at check-in, they took his ticket and told him there’s an issue and he can’t go through security.”
He also said El Al refused to explain what the problem was, and instead the clerk screamed, “I’m busy!”
After a short conversation with a ground stewardess, Rabbi R. discovered his seat in the back of the plane had been sold to someone else.
“She told him, ‘If I had somewhere to put you, I’d let you board the flight,’ and he didn’t know what they wanted from him,” Rabbi R.’s son explained. “They did it only because he’s a gentle rabbi with a hat and suit, and they knew he wouldn’t make problems. It’s a real scandal to throw someone off a plane with no prior warning, especially after he bought his ticket months in advance.”
Rabbi R. was forced to fly to New Jersey, where he spent Shabbat, and only after a lot of pressure was he able to get a seat on the El Al flight which landed in Israel just minutes before Sukkot.
“His flight landed at 5pm,” Rabbi R.’s son said. “We stood helpless for hours, not knowing if our father would manage to land and arrive home before sunset. Thank G-d they allowed him to disembark immediately, so a Hatzalah volunteer could drive him home. He walked in exactly two minutes before sunset. Why did we deserve this kind of heartache from El Al?”
In reality, what happened was a result of El Al’s overbooking, which started as an optional way to make additional money and turned into a necessity. Every flight has people who book and don’t show up, requesting all or part of their money back.
Slight overbooking is a statistical solution to prevent this problem, and airlines try to calculate how much overbooking is safe to do before passengers begin to get bumped off the flight. However, most passengers aren’t aware that the airlines purposely overbook and that they may not really have a seat.
On the other hand, only rarely do all of the passengers who booked a seat actually show up at the airport. Often the ground staff will look for volunteers who are willing to be bumped in return for reimbursement, but if there are none the staff is forced to choose randomly, often choosing to close check-in early, as soon as the flight is filled to capacity.
Those passengers who do get bumped are given a place to sleep, food, and communications as a reimbursement, though it is often not enough to make up for the headache caused by being bumped.
Rabbi R. claims El Al chose not to let him on the flight, even though he needed to land in Israel before Sukkot and could not travel on Shabbat because “he was an easy target who would not make trouble.” Rabbi R. also said that on his New Jersey-Israel flight they attempted to bump a passenger off because the flight was overbooked, but “the passenger made such a fuss that the crew got nervous and decided to find an easier person to bump.”