The Travel Adviser: Etiquette and the lack of civility

easyJet's Airbus plane

easyJet’s Airbus plane. (photo credit: Courtesy)



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Etiquette: the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group. Etiquette is behavior that assists survival and has changed and evolved over the years. Let’s face it, Israelis and fellow members of the tribe are not known for high standards when it comes to basic etiquette.

Wait for an elevator at any Israeli shopping center, parking lot or office tower and when the doors open, Israelis scurry inside without letting those exiting to leave. Pause at a green light more than a millisecond and the shrill sound of a car horn will be heard. Stand in a queue for a bus and someone will try to cut in front. We take pride in being brusque and relish loud exchanges opining on politics and sports. Debates in Israel often look as if kindergarten children received a new toy and sharing is not an option.
Recently a retired airline pilot phoned me up requesting to come to my office to discuss something of great importance. He was so incensed, he travelled a long distance to spend 30 minutes extolling his outlook on the Israeli passenger. He was adamant that his background and previous employer be kept anonymous, attesting that the cabin crews he had flown with as well as other airlines his fellow pilots fly were rabid antisemites – not simply dismissive of their clientele that they are paid to serve but fervent antisemites. He regaled me with their comments and outlooks on the very people they are paid to provide service, too.
He asserted that on some of the low-cost carriers that fly into Israel, there are large numbers of cabin crew cancellations when assigned Tel Aviv bound flights due to their distance for the flyers. 
Initially I commented that much of Europe is antisemitic so was not surprised by his assessment. He quickly corrected my assertion.
His point wasn’t that they began their profession as antisemites, rather that flying the route and seeing firsthand the boorish behavior became the base for their outlook. Repeated flights deepened and cemented their position.
Stories abound about ultra-Orthodox Jews refusing to sit next to a woman and delaying flights from taking off until they were moved to a women free zone. El Al in particular has been chided and brought to court for their inability to demand passengers to refrain from harassing other flyers and their capitulation to this large percentage of their revenue.
United Airlines has a sterling reputation for not harboring such actions, and citing US safety regulations have gone so far to remove passengers who refuse to take their seat. My opinion has steadfastly been that it is the responsibility of the airline to enforce these basic codes of civility but my esteemed visitor puts the onus on us. 
EasyJet, one of the largest low-cost airlines flying to Israel owes a great deal of its income from the Jewish passenger. Known throughout the airline industry to be astute at collecting ancillary fees when they began flying to Israel, they encountered a completely different type of passenger.
UNWILLING TO pay for tea or coffee, a small percentage of EasyJet clients would ask for a cup of hot water from the flight crew and upon receipt, pop in their own tea bag. EasyJet passengers often find it more comfortable to stand up in the aisle discussing all matters creating havoc for the crew to simply walk around the cabin. Furtive requests to take one’s seat’ are met with blank stares, and rumor has it that top management has informed the staff that on flights to and from Israel such abhorrent behavior is to be accepted. Unlike other EasyJet flights, removal of passengers for rowdy behavior has not been enforced. 
On flights inside Europe, EasyJet is not so forgiving. There was an incident a few years ago on a flight from Barcelona to Paris where a group of passengers were kicked off their flights for behaving in a disruptive manner. Unfortunately for EasyJet, the passengers were blatantly Jewish and claims of antisemitism were hurled at the airline. Furiously denying the contention, the airline declared the passengers were kicked off the flight for their behavior and not for being Jewish.
While the UK airline EasyJet is often listed as the largest foreign airline in volume of passengers to and from Israel, there are three Israeli airlines – Arkia, El Al and Israir – where the majority of their crews are Jewish. 
One of the smaller ones, Israir made history when the heated argument between the flight attendants and passengers went viral. No doubt the verbal altercation was over a major issue. Perhaps a shard of glass was found in the meal. Maybe the commode back up leaving a stench on the plane. No such luck. The verbal diarrhea emanating from several passengers stemmed from a disagreement over the purchase of chocolate.
Israelis love their sweets which no doubt must explain why the attendants were called pieces of garbage and sworn at. Upon arrival in Varna as well as the return to Israel, no charges were ever brought against those paragons of society. Israir only released a statement stating that the phenomenon of passenger violence against the flight crew is only increasing.
Earlier this summer, an El Al flight to Frankfurt was delayed by nearly two hours. El Al is notorious in having one of the lowest on-time arrival rates of any airline. El Al consistently is among the world’s most delayed airlines. This can be propounded by a myriad of factors from increased security screenings to Ben-Gurion airport, but El Al regularly can only muster an on time departure of 33%. The flight to Frankfurt, though, was not El Al’s fault. 
It seems that two Israeli passengers holding tourist-class tickets sat in business-class seats. Sure, they didn’t take paying passengers seats; the business cabin was half-empty so it makes sense: Why not upgrade yourself to business class? What are the chances of being discovered? Take that class of wine offered before take-off; enjoy the distribution of newspapers and chuckle quietly at your good fortune. Most of us would never contemplate, let alone act on such a flagrant move. We would be too embarrassed or ashamed. We might take an empty seat in economy class and put or handbag there hoping nobody would sit there but move up to business class? That takes chutzpah!
When these gracious Israelis were confronted by the El Al crew, how did they respond? With a shrug of their shoulders and an impish grin as they meandered back to economy class? Nincompoops, you are. They argued vociferously that the seats were empty and refused to move. Threats were made, the plane returned to the terminal and police were summoned to remove the passengers. Their baggage was located and removed, which was the culprit for the delay. El Al has yet to decide whether to press charges. My hunch is they will let it drop.
DISTURBANCES CAUSED by passengers on flights is something that the aviation sector takes seriously. The number one cause of disturbances by passengers on a plane is excess consumption of alcohol. Be it Irish or Italian airlines or US or Japanese flights, when you hear about disruptive passengers, the odds are high it was alcohol-related. Not so with the Israelis. Drinking is rarely the culprit for their outbursts.
Keep in mind that flying has increasingly become a world of the haves and have-nots, starting with purchasing a ticket and boarding sorted by status. Once on the plane, passengers can see where they fit in the hierarchy, with the seats getting smaller and legroom tighter with each passing row. Then there’s the scramble to secure space in the overhead bins. Researchers have argued that the stresses of flying contribute to an increase in unruly behavior on planes. Add to the mix that there are fewer flight attendants than there once were, and it allows more incidents to occur. What poppycock!
Off a plane when there is an unpleasant or threatening interaction, most people walk away before it escalates. Obviously on a plane there are few escape routes, and while European airlines and airports can create campaigns like “The One Too Many,” this is targeted at those prone to excessive drinking. The One Too Many campaign reminds passengers of their responsibilities and the severe consequences of drinking to excess. Yes, some Jews abuse alcohol and some Israelis, too, have learned to enjoy hard liquor, but on planes our deficient etiquette is hardwired and I’m skeptical it can be changed. 
Our lack of basic civility can be seen even in business class. My esteemed pilot tells me that on European airlines even business class is not left unscathed. Blankets and food along with trash are strewn on the floor and the ground crew bitterly complains about “those” people. 
Campaigns have been tried in Israel exhorting citizens to be nicer to tourists: to smile more, to not rip them off if you drive a taxi or manage a restaurant. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
 Almost all of my tourists group rave lavishly on the country, its sights and its cuisine, its history and its heritage. Most are visibly moved by their visit and their interactions. And just as many comment on our behavior, and their bemused expression makes it clear it is not meant as a compliment.
Good manners should be taught at an early age because once bad habits form, they’re difficult to change. We need to realize that from the moment children are born, the adults serve as role models. If the parents are rude, the children will be too. Although some customs change, good manners never go out of style. Color me skeptical. As the pilot of a British Airline was recently quoted saying over the loudspeaker as the plane started its decent into Ben-Gurion Airport: “I’d like to welcome all of you coming to Israel and to those of you standing in the aisle: Welcome Home.” 
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il.

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