El Al – just like home (and with the nomination to prove it)

Airline Passenger Experience Association

Earlier in the week, I wrote about dropping my youngest son at the airport to fly as an “unaccompanied minor” to Los Angeles. We could have chosen many different airlines – Delta, Continental, US Air, or a flight routed via Europe – but we opted for El Al. For many Israelis and Jews, it’s sort of a gut reaction – of course, we’ll choose El Al, they’re the safest. And we’re supporting the Zionist endeavor.

Then, those of us who are old enough to remember, will shudder with memories of surly stewardesses and a seating configuration in coach that packed twice the number of rows into the same space as a comparable transatlantic flight, resulting in a situation where, if the guy in front of you leans back while you’re eating, you don’t need a spoon to eat your yogurt. And then there was El Al’s well deserved nickname “Every Landing Always Late.”

But, as Mr. D. would intone, the times they are a-changin.

El Al has been nominated for six awards from the Airline Passenger Experience Association in Overall Flight Experience, Best In-Flight Magazine, Best Ground Experience, Outstanding Safety Video, Best Cabin Ambiance and the Middle East regional category.

APEX includes as members most of the world’s regular airlines, as well as media corporations, marketing companies, and plane and flight equipment manufacturers. The award ceremony will be held next month during the APEX 2011 EXPO in Seattle, Washington.

Other than the best magazine and safety video (which are mere distractions from the main show), the other nominations are quite impressive. They will of course be no surprise for travelers flying El Al in recent years. The flight attendants are delightfully Israeli (meaning both brash and willing to overlook the rules – “you want to store that oversized duffle bag in the aisle – no problem”) and the hot bagels and pita are pretty tasty, especially compared with the half frozen kosher TV dinner option on Czech Air (really, don’t get me started).

The category for Best Cabin Ambience makes me smile – I wonder who the voters are? Probably weighted heavily with other Israelis. Because if there’s one thing you can say with certainty, it’s that from the moment you board an El Al flight, you’ll feel like you’re visiting long lost family from Holon: lots of talking (at all hours of the night), heavy gesticulation (“sorry, was that your drink?”), and unrepentant hogging of the arm rests if you’re lucky (downright snoozing on your shoulder if you’re particularly prone to snagging snorers).

Some 60,000 passengers from all over the world took part in this year’s survey, which included about 70 airlines from 37 countries. Go team blue and white!


Unaccompanied minor

I took my 13-year-old son to the airport last night. He was flying as an “unaccompanied minor” to Los Angeles to meet up with his grandparents who have promised him two weeks of unmitigated American fun (roller coasters, beaches and all you can eat sushi – yum, I wish I was 13 again!)

The unaccompanied minor (or UM, as the El Al staff calls them) program is a mini-industry for the airlines. There must have been a dozen kids, ranging in age from six to fifteen, in the posse, all wearing their UM plastic pouches draped around their necks. For the privilege of keeping their kids from wandering astray in the duty free, buying 12-packs of Toblerones, parents pay $100 each way.

We got to the airport the proscribed three hours before the flight – usually that feels excessively cautious, but seeing the crowds jostling towards the check in counters during one of the busiest summers in history at Ben Gurion International, I was thankful to have the time.

I wasn’t sure exactly where to go – I’d been told something about a mysterious “counter 98” – so I went to ask a security person. “Come with me,” she said somewhat sternly. Uh, oh, I thought.  Had I done something wrong? Nah, she was jumping us ahead of the thousand or so sweaty passengers to the front of the line. Cool – this was better than in the years when I got to stand in the “short line” to fly business class!

This also presented us with a problem – er, an opportunity – since we now had nearly two hours free before the UM’s were supposed to return to counter 98 to be collected by the El Al staff and whisked through security and passport control.

There aren’t a lot of pickings in the shopping lounge open to the public at the airport. A McDonald’s, a couple of cafes and a Pizza Hut. Also a pharmacy and a Steimatzky’s selling overpriced books that you can buy for half once you cross the Atlantic (hey, how come the social justice movement isn’t protesting the high price of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union?)

My son ordered a sandwich and a water. NIS 40, the kiosk salesperson said. Yowza, can you say price gouging of a captive audience. My slice of pizza was NIS 18 – just earlier in the day my son complained that he’d had to spend NIS 12 for a slice at the mall and that was pushing it.

We ate slowly, talked about the trip, the excitement of flying alone, and the Flash Pass Uncle Dave bought for the their day trip to the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. Before we knew it, the two hours were up and I was hugging my big boy goodbye as he was sucked through the bowels of Terminal 3.

As I drove home, I thought about the time when I first flew alone, also to my grandparents, and how such an adventure marks a kind of rite of passage, even more momentous than the bar mitzvah that preceded my son’s trip just a few months before. Sure, getting an aliyah to the Torah is nice, but sitting in a window seat without your parents and ordering as much Coca Cola as you want – now that’s the real deal!


Dueling Eicha’s…with wheels

Segway riders at the Haas Promenade

As David wrote yesterday, the holiday of Tisha B’av has befallen us (morbid pun intended) and Jews all over the world are spending the day reflecting, fasting or otherwise using the holiday’s restrictions to avoid shaving and bathing for a day.

On the evening of Tisha B’av, it is traditional to hear the book of Lamentations (Eicha) being read in a communal setting. In Jerusalem, there is no lack of options. One of the most moving is outdoors at the Haas Promenade (the tayelet in Hebrew), which overlooks the Old City. If one isn’t sure why we still bother to mourn the destruction of the Temples so many centuries ago on this day (especially when we have regained sovereignty over the land), you can just gaze from this lookout point and imagine what if the Jewish state no longer existed and access to what Judaism calls its most holy places was cut off (as it was between 1948-1967). David’s quote of Rabbi Stewart Weiss’s essay drives the point home.

But there’s a “lighter side” to Tisha B’av, as my experience last night at the tayelet proved. The scene is quite remarkable: tens of different minyans, small and large, bumping up against each other on the paved upper part of the promenade, on the grass below, and even further down in the direction of the Peace Forest. Unlike at the Western Wall, many are co-ed. The participants range from overseas yeshiva students to egalitarian vegetarians (each with their own group and leader).

I chose to attend a mixed modern Orthodox reading. I arrived late and sat near the edge of the congregation while a man chanted the 5 chapters of Eicha in a soulful yet dirge-like voice. About halfway through, another minyan set up camp directly above me and began their own reading of Eicha. The two were out of sync, the interplay playing out like an impromptu and not entirely welcome duet.

The effect didn’t make for easy listening; I eventually closed my book and stared into Silwan, the Arab village surrounding the City of David, adjacent to the Old City. Then, inexplicably, I heard a rumble from not too far away. It got louder and closer until about 15 men and women on Segways came barreling through our Eicha encampment. The Segways  stayed to the pavement, but it was still an amusing juxtaposition – the tall, sleek, two-wheeled vehicles with their helmeted riders bobbing back and forth, zipping past hundreds of modern day mourners seated on the ground in the dark with flashlight illuminating their prayer books.

The Segways made a second pass before leaving us in peace, but I couldn’t help thinking: if the goal is to remember the bad things that have befallen the Jewish people, some in this very spot, and in my case by soaking in the visual environment rather than following the text word-by-word, couldn’t you do it just as well from a Segway as from a 2000-year-old scroll?

With the Segways gone, it was back to the dueling Eichas. Remarkably, the two readings ended at the same point – kudos to the conductor (or as some would say the Conductor with a capital C).


My aunt the spy

We met a real honest-to-goodness spy this past Shabbat. “Florence” (not her real name) was in town for the bar mitzvah of her nephew. We were all making small talk – the unseasonably hot weather, how well the bar mitzvah boy read – when I asked Florence “so what do you do?”

She was quick to answer. “I work for the CIA. Well, I did. I’m retired now.”

“What do you mean, worked for the CIA? What exactly did you…” I asked.

“I was a spy,” she interrupted, matter-of-factly. “I was based in Europe and I collected information for 20 years, mostly about the Russians, but about other things as well.”

Now, meeting someone in Israel who has some connection to Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, is not so unusual. They won’t tell you, but if you know the right questions, you can usually figure it out. But there was something somehow exotic about meeting a real American spook.

So, what were those “other things” you mentioned, I asked.

Florence then revealed that she was one of the lone dissenting voices in the CIA leading up to the war in Iraq. She argued strenuously that Saddam Hussein did not in fact have weapons of mass destruction. No one would listen. Until one day she found a friendly ear (she wouldn’t say who).

“Do you have any documentation?” the ear asked. About 2 and a half feet of it, Florence responded. She then proceeded to fax 2,600 hundred pages. Eventually she was all over the television news in the U.S. (which is why she could talk freely about her deeds and why I can blog about it here). In any case, the CIA wasn’t interested in hiding her identity anymore. “It’s way too expensive to ‘retire’ a covert spy,” she added.

Her story bears some resemblance to that of “out-ed” CIA operative Valerie Plame. I asked Florence about the movie Fair Game starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, which is mostly what I know about the Plame case. Florence’s face began to twitch. I don’t know if it she was making a deliberately dismissive gesture or was legitimately worked up. “That movie bears no resemblance to the truth,” she snapped.

Spoken like a true spy, even a retired one.

Israel ranks high in venture capital investment, patents

Well-known Israeli investor Erel Margalit of JVP in Jerusalem

If you’ve got the impression that there are a lot of startups raising a lot of money in Israel, we now have the data to back it up. And another report that came out this week shows that Israel is also high on the list of patents applications.

Haaretz reported that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) put Israel first on a list of venture capital investments as a percentage of GDP. The ranking, based on 2009 data, found that venture capital investments in Israel were equal to 0.18% of GDP, which ranked it higher than developed economies such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

On the patent front, Israel didn’t score quite as high, but was still among the top countries in terms of patent applications, coming in at #15. 7,266 new patent applications were submitted in 2010 and 2,293 were granted. Israel ranked slightly higher at #11 in the ratio of applications to its GDP for the years 1995-2007.

2010 was a good year for trademarks submitted to the Israel Patent, Design and Trademarks Office. According to Ynet, there were 8,017 trademark applications. Interestingly, nearly 70% of the applications were submitted by foreign applicants.

There was some bad news mixed in with the good. When it comes to the bureaucracy involved in setting up a company, specifically for startups, Israel ranked a miserable 29th out of a total of 37 countries studied. That puts us only eight places above China, the last-ranked country.

The countries where start-ups face the least amount of bureaucracy are Ireland and Germany.

But (and we have to end on good news), in a ranking of venture capital plus growth capital, Israel came in second to Ireland. Now, if only we had more good bagpipe bands, we’d soar above the Emerald Isle.