Monday, August 17, 2015

The passage of forty years

I first arrived in Israel late in the afternoon of July 16th 1967. I knew enough about the country not to expect camels and desert everywhere, but it did seem fitting that our first view from the windows of the plane was of sand dunes. By the time we exited the terminal it was dark, and we climbed aboard a taxi which had no air conditioning so the warm evening wind blew in through the open windows. The road up to Jerusalem was probably two lanes, but it wasn't crowded. Most Israelis  didn't own cars in those days. I remember it snaked up down and around, hugging the contours of the Judean hills; I also remember that we passed though a number of towns, and there were lots of people out on the streets, enjoying the respite from the heat of the day. Eventually we reached Jerusalem, and the cab driver had to ask directions to our destination, a hostel-like place in Kiryat Hayovel.

I especially remember the feeling of exuberance in the air. A few blocks from our destination the cabbie pulled up in front of a group of people sitting around a camp fire; a young boy rushed up to us and shouted in excitement "We won! We won!" Two blocks down a young woman also expressed delight in the victory, before directing us around the corner.

It was a month after the Six Day War.

I flew into Israel on the 16th of July this year, too, late in the afternoon. The sand dunes are all gone, covered by housing projects of 15- or 20-story residential towers. (There probably weren't more than two such buildings in all of Israel in 1967). The towns are crisscrossed by broad multi-lane highways, all of them clogged with vehicles. On the road up to Jerusalem we didn't enter a single town; the highway stays out of them all. Arriving in Jerusalem we saw no dancing groups of celebrators. People don't do public celebrations on hot summer evenings anymore.

48 years have seen a lot of change.

Forty years ago today, on August 17th 1975, I enlisted in the IDF.

The IDF in those days was still reeling from the Yom Kippur War. A year earlier recruits were reportedly given three choices upon enlistment: they could join the tanks, or the tanks, or the tanks. By the time I arrived people were volunteering to the paratroopers and being sent to the one or two other infantry units, but most people went into the armoured corps. Most of the army seemed to be there in those days; once there they served either on the Golan or in the Sinai. The enemy was Egypt, or Syria; I never had a single military encounter with Palestinians in my entire three-year stint - or for that matter, in my subsequent 30-40 months of reserve duty spread over the next 25 years. I had an officer who was certified as being shell-shocked, and a company commander who wasn't certified but should have been.

The first evening in the recruitment depot Evyatar and I crawled out under a fence and went to find a public telephone to call home. Being 18, we weren't afraid of fighting or dying; but we were apprehensive about sharing tents and training with the loud and rough-looking soldiers from parts of society we'd never interacted with. I suppose they may have been prickly about us, too, but we didn't see this at the time. Doing first rounds of kitchen duty was frightening: we were ordered around by soldiers who seemed to delight in our sense of apprehension and disorientation.

It was hot. It was strange. It was radically different. We had boarded the bus in Jerusalem cocky with the sensation that we were joining something big and important; now it looked mostly foreign and disconcerting. And l-o-o-o-n-g! Three whole years! In this?! Three. Whole. Years. Would we ever return to a normal civilian life, such as the one we'd just left so blithely behind?

Yes and no, in retrospect. We did, of course, because three years isn't, actually, very long. We didn't, in many ways, because by the time we got out we ourselves were very different.

That first evening, in a hot tent on a prickly blanket on a steel-frame cot was one of the most important points of my life. The thing is, I knew it at the time, too - and yet I didn't. Donning the ugly and uncomfortable olive uniform and clunky boots gave us the feeling of now being adults, citizens, contributors to society, lords of our destiny. And also hopelessly young and inexperienced, rookies, untested and insignificant cogs in a large machine which didn't at all care about who we'd been so far. We knew we were on the cusp of one of life's biggest adventures; we didn't have the slightest inkling of what we were facing. We knew we were setting out on a rite of passage; we didn't comprehend the rite or where we'd pass to. The system was reeling after war, and it looked solid and impregnable; we were over-confident and exuberant; ignorant of what we'd be called upon to deal with and what growth we'd be required to perform.

Evyatar eventually made it all the way to full Colonel. I climbed up to first sergeant. Yet each of us and all of us really did acquire a personal confidence based on achievement and the satisfaction of successfully coping, functioning in the system, and mastering its requirements. By the time we walked out, we really were adults, citizens, contributors to society and, oh yes, lords of our destiny to the degree this is granted to mere mortals.

And a good thing, too, because the country was changing. From two-lane roads across sand dunes, to highways between hi-tech development centers; from the simplicity of singing around a campfire on a hot summer evening to the complexity of a multilayered, multifaceted society smack in the middle of one of the world's most volatile regions. There is more than one path we can take in life, and more than one direction society can move in. Our ability to participate in the way we have, to contribute in the ways we've managed, to own our society for better and for worse, were profoundly forged by what followed when we woke, for the first time, in those hot ugly tents on the morning of August 18th 1975 to face our first full day in the army.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

How Air Berlin consciously, purposefully and cynically screwed its passengers - three times in a row

About a month ago I apologized to my readers for branching off into a bit of consumerism, and told how Air Berlin had intentionally lost the luggage of a few hundred passengers. Since then the story has gotten worse, so I'm posting a quick summary.
On July 5th 2015 Air Berlin sent off flight  AB3546  from Tegel airport in Berlin to Reykjavik in Iceland with about 250 passengers, and perhaps 50 pieces of luggage. This was not an oversight, nor the accidental misdirecting of a suitcase. You can't misplace 200 pieces of luggage without noticing what you're doing. Later, in Reykjavik, someone told us Air Berlin preferred some other cargo over our luggage. I don't know if this is true, but it seems plausible. Someone at Tegel decided that Air Berlin had more to gain by harming its passengers than by treating them as they expected when they bought their tickets.

So that was the first time Air Berlin  purposefully screwed us.

We spent the next 12 days in Iceland, having a wonderful time hiking in the mountains. Iceland really is spectacular!
Some time soon I'll post on Iceland and JRR Tolkien, but not today.

During our entire time in Iceland, Air Berlin never made any attempt to contact us, much less offer information about what we might expect. The night of the flight they uttered nary a word, though of course they knew even before taking off that they were about to inflict harm on us. We arrived in Reykjavik at about 3am, and were left to figure out on our own what was going on; there was no Air Berlin representative in sight. The next morning we had to decide if and what to purchase to replace or not replace the lost luggage. No word from Air Berlin. Actually, we never managed to be in contact with an Air Berlin representative throughout our entire stay. Any updates and eventual retrieval of our luggage was all organized by the The Icelandic tourist company giving us logistic support for our hike. (Icelandic Mountain Guides, if you're interested. They were excellent. The diametric opposite of Air Berlin). So that was the second time Air Berlin harmed us.

Our luggage trickled in over the next 12 days. The first pieces reached our group on Friday, on the 5th day after the flight; mine arrived on the following Wednesday, just as we were on our way back to the airport to fly out of Iceland.

Since returning home we've all lodged complaints on the Air Berlin website. Interestingly, this website does not dwell on the possibility that the airline sometimes purposefully harms its passengers.  Air Berlin's responses to our claims are exactly what you'd expect of a company which holds its clients in contempt. Most of us have been offered small rebates the next time we fly with Air Berlin! As if any of us ever will! The sums seem to be totally random, except that they're all small. One or two of us got other offers, equally unacceptable. I was initially told to re-submit my claim, at a section of their website which refused to accept the claim.

So the third unacceptable treatment Air Berlin has meted out is its cynical ignoring of us, and its intentional disregard of all our attempts to obtain some sort of reimbursement for the costs we incurred through their direct actions. Clearly someone in Air Berlin has thought about the matter and decided that they're a big company, and we're small individuals, and that's simply a fact. Big companies can aford to despise small individuals secure in the knowledge that they'll get away with it.

And the source of their smug impunity? It's the fact they've done it before. In 2013 they lost all the luggage of an entire flight, didn't own up, disdainfully screwed the passengers, and lived to tell the tale. A mere two years later all the members of our group blithely bought tickets on an Air Berlin flight without any inkling how atrocious the airline is. Since July 5th lots of other folks have bought Air Berlin tickets, ignorant of the pernicious record of this airline. So why should Air Berlin give a hoot how much damage they inflicted on us?

Unless of course it eventually occurs to the leaders of Air Berlin that one nasty story, and another, and another, and another, will eventually dent their reputation and begin to have a cost. Perhaps even a higher cost than reimbursing their passengers in a fair manner.

Legalese postscript: There's a thing called the Montreal Convention which details what an Airline such as Air Berlin owes its passengers when it causes them harm. Article 22 details what happens when luggage is detained. Paragraph 5 is particularly interesting, and unambiguously describes the behavior of Air Berlin in our case:
The foregoing provisions of paragraphs 1 and 2 of this Article shall not apply if it is proved that the damage resulted from an act or omission of the carrier, its servants or agents, done with intent to cause damage or recklessly and with knowledge that damage would probably result; provided that, in the case of such act or omission of a servant or agent, it is also proved that such servant or agent was acting within the scope of its employment.
Interestingly, if you look long enough you'll find a document on the Air Berlin website which rather grudgingly admits (in passing, on page 15) that Air Berlin is, actually, aware of the Montreal Convention.

What have we learned from this? That NO ONE SHOULD EVER EVER FLY AIR BERLIN!

Pass it on.

Addendum: Here's a story by some other fellow who's really really angry at Air Berlin.