American Airlines cancels Philadelphia-Tel Aviv route

After losing $20 million annually, American Airlines will end its Philadelphia-Tel Aviv service in January.                           Photo by istock
After losing $20 million annually, American Airlines will end its Philadelphia-Tel Aviv service in January. Photo by istock

PHILADELPHIA — Getting a Philadelphia-Tel Aviv nonstop flight will become a lot more challenging come 2016.

American Airlines announced last week that it will no longer operate nonstop service between Philadelphia International Airport and Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv as of January.

“Although the route has been a source of pride for American since 2009, the route has operated year-round for six years and has yet to turn a profit,” according to a statement from the company. “The fact of the matter is that PHL TLV has not performed well since its inception. We lost more than $20 million in the past year alone, and that was after repeated annual losses. The sole reason we are cancelling this route is because of poor financial results.”

The final flight to Israel from Philadelphia will be on Jan. 4, 2016, with the last return flight on Jan. 5, 2016.

However, a report in the Israeli online business publication, The Marker, disputes American Airlines’ claim that it has been hemorrhaging money on the route. In an Aug. 23 article by Rina Rozenberg and Zohar Blumenkrantz titled, “Sources: American Airlines dropped Israel route to deepen ties with Arab carriers,” the authors write that the airline’s relationship with Arab carriers like Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian and Malaysia Airlines through the OneWorld alliance is the real reason for the route cancellation.

The article quoted an anonymous industry source as saying, “Profitability wasn’t a problem. The past year hasn’t been easy for the airline industry in general, but that’s far from saying that the route wasn’t profitable. No one would have operated a money-losing route for so many years.”

Jill Dressler also believes there was more to the decision than American is letting on. The Fort Washington, Pa., resident, who visits her stepson, his children and her brother and sister-in-law often in Israel, said this cancellation has nothing to do with money.

“My own personal life is going to be affected by this dramatically,” she said. “I think we have to get together and make American Airlines realize this can’t happen. I think it’s anti-Semitic.”

Dressler contacted her elected officials, and state Sen. Richard Alloway, a Republican whose district includes the Reading area, connected her with Rhett Workman, the managing director of government and airport affairs at the airline. In an email to Dressler, Workman reiterated the company’s position that this decision was made after a great deal of financial analysis and research.

“While we can maintain losses for a period of time, continued loss without the possibility of profit is detrimental to our shareholders and the company,” Workman said. “Appreciating Israel’s place in the world and the challenges it faces, we were adamant in all our communications that this was a financial decision and we were not politically pressured in any way. I realize on your flights you did not see empty seats, but that is not always indicative of the profitability of a route. Unfortunately, this is a situation that what one sees is not the fiscal reality.”

Sandy Dressler of North Wales, Pa., who is the former wife of Jill Dressler’s husband, Mitchell, goes to Israel once or twice a year to see her family.

“I’m very upset,” she said. “It’s going to be a hardship. I can’t imagine why American Airlines did this.”
She said she finds it hard to believe that American Airlines is losing $20 million a year flying from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv.

Betsy Diamant-Cohen, whose husband, Stuart Diamant-Cohen, Greater Washington and Virginia director of the Jewish National Fund, was on the American Airlines flight Tuesday. The couple usually fly this route once or twice a year.

“She’s going right now for a family celebration. Her niece is getting married,” Stuart Diamant-Cohen said.
Diamant-Cohen said he “read that it was a business decision based on the possibility of more business for the airline for Arab countries. I don’t know if that’s true.”

When that direct flight is canceled, people will be left “in the lurch. Frankly, I don’t know what we’re going to be doing in the future. I assume someone will come out with a new alternative. I’m sure there’s profit in it for an airline to step in,” he said, adding, “I would love to put a plug in for a route from Baltimore because that would cover more of the Washington market.”

Richard Hellman, a Washingtonian who is the president and founder of Christians’ Israel Public Action Campaign, called the cancellation of the Philadelphia to Tel Aviv route distressing.

“It lessens the options that we have and may increase the cost because of the lessened competition,” he said.

In the last two of his organization’s three missions to Israel, participants flew out of Philadelphia.
“We are very disappointed and hope they change that decision or some other carrier” adds a non-stop flight, he said.

Barry Bogage, the executive director of Maryland/Israel Development Center, also is disappointed.
“I like that route,” he said, adding that now he will either have to take a train to the Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey or fly to the JFK International Airport in New York City before flying to Israel, he said.

Cindy Zitelman of Rockville is “so mad” and is “ready to sign a petition” to convince American Airlines officials to change their minds.

She flies that route two or three times a year to visit her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter in Jerusalem. They,  in turn, fly from Israel to Philadelphia to visit her.

Whenever she traveled, “the flight has always, always been full,” Zitelman said.

Although the flight from New York to Tel Avis costs less than the one departing from Philadelphia, it’s easier to drive to Philadelphia, where Zitelman also can visit her family there, she said.

“I just hope someone else” begins regular flights between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv, she said.

Michael Alexander, the director of governmental affairs and press at the Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region, said the consulate is disappointed in American’s decision to cancel the route.

“A huge share of business activity between Israel and the U.S. passes through the Philadelphia ports, and termination of that flight might impact that valuable traffic,” Alexander said. “While the new logistical reality of commuting from Israel to Philadelphia will be, in light of this decision, slightly more challenging, it is by no means insurmountable. The commitment of the consulate to continue enhancing already strong existing business ties between Israel and the Mid-Atlantic Region remains as strong as ever.”

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Philadelphia) is opposed to the cancellation of flights to Israel and plans to work with American Airlines to see if there is another solution.

“It is a critically important route, both for the constituents in my district who travel between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv, and also for the growing business relationship between our city and Israel,” he said in a statement. “The effects of this decision will not only hurt tourism between our two countries, it will have a negative impact on our economies. The ease and accessibility offered by this flight had significant long-term potential to stimulate growth and communication.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who has visited Israel twice in the past two years, is disappointed in the decision as well. Nutter believes this may hinder businesses in Israel as more Israeli businesses have expressed interest in Philadelphia.

“American Airlines’ decision sends the wrong message about our city and region as an open and business friendly locale and damages American Airlines’ reputation as an international business,” Nutter said in a statement. “Convenient air travel between the Middle Atlantic states and Israel is an important factor in sustaining future business growth. The Philadelphia International Airport will continue to pursue other air service options for passengers who seek travel to Israel and other Middle Eastern destinations.”

However, the cancellation of flights from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv isn’t having a negative effect on everyone. Richard Bendit, president of the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, said he doesn’t like it, but there is still a strong business relationship between Philadelphia and Israel.

“Although the Philadelphia-Tel Aviv service was a catalyst for business development between the Greater Philadelphia Region and Israel, this flight did not singularly define our region as a strong business destination for Israeli trade and commerce,” Bendit said.

Jason Cohen is a reporter at the Jewish Exponent.
WJW writers Suzanne Pollak and Melissa Apter contributed to this report.

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