Photo Credit: Flash 90
An El Al airplane at Ben Gurion International Airport

A group of 180 passengers has filed a lawsuit against El Al Airlines, demanding a public apology and financial compensation for last week’s “horror flight.” The plane departed New York City’s JFK airport hours later than scheduled last Friday, and then was forced to divert to Athens to avoid desecrating the Sabbath.

According to a report broadcast on Israel’s Channel 10 news, attorneys for the group sent a letter to the airlines demanding NIS 50,000 (($13,000) in damages for emotional distress to each of the 180 passengers, and a public apology by the company for accusations in the media that some of the Orthodox Jewish passengers attacked flight attendants and threatened to break into the cockpit.

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The letter said the airline crew “deliberately lied to passengers and disrespected them. It blamed flight attendants for the delay that caused the passengers to land in Athens, leading them to observe Shabbat “in an inconvenient place, causing them emotional distress.”

Moreover, a subsequent media campaign carried out by the airline, said the attorneys for the passengers, “disseminated false information about ‘manifestations of violence’ on the part of the passengers that never actually happened.

“This spread malicious and false rumors about a group that most of the public already enjoys hating,” the letter went on.

El Al and a number of secular passengers claimed that some hareidi-religious passengers were violent towards flight attendants — charges that were debunked by numerous Israeli religious journalists and other witnesses who were on the same flight.

El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin spoke Tuesday with a senior rabbinic figure regarding the flight and the company’s internal investigation that is now underway.

He told the rabbi, “I never said that haredim attacked or rioted on the flight; there was no physical violence,” Israel Hayom reported. Usishkin encouraged the rabbi to pass on his statement.

Observant Jewish passengers urged the flight crew and the captain to let them disembark prior to departure after the extended delay on the tarmac, and they realized it was likely they would not arrive prior to the start of the holy Sabbath in Israel.

Several witnesses said the pilot told them “everything would be okay” — leading them to believe they would indeed be allowed to disembark — and directed them to return to their seats while the plane was in motion. However, instead he turned the plane around and took the skies to the dismay of dozens of observant Jews who later said they felt “trapped,” with some even saying they felt as if they had been “hijacked by El Al.”

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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for Babble.com, Chabad.org and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.