69.8 F
The Villages
Monday, June 5, 2023

Grounded Villagers caught up in chaos at airport in Israel

International travel is raging in popularity now that the pandemic is over.

Ocean cruises with brilliant sunsets, urban vistas in foreign ports, exotic cuisine and tours of ancient ruins beckon seasoned travelers.

But international travel also has its perils as a half dozen Villagers discovered recently.

My wife, Barbara Snell, and I joined our Village of Duval neighbors, Don and Brenda Peters, Sandy Adams and Julie Lindsay on the trip.

Brenda Peters, Barbara Snell, Marv Balousek and Don Peters, from left, on the cruise ship. (Julie Lindsay photos)
Brenda Peters, Barbara Snell, Marv Balousek and Don Peters, from left, on the cruise ship. (Julie Lindsay photo)

After a 17-day Royal Caribbean trans-Atlantic cruise on the Rhapsody of the Seas followed by another cruise to the Greek islands, getting home turned into a nightmare.

Our trans-Atlantic cruise from Miami stopped at the Portuguese island of Madeira, Spain, Sicily and Mykonos Greece before arriving in Haifa Israel. We stayed on the ship for the second cruise, which stopped at the Greek islands of Santorini and Rhodes as well as Ephesus in Turkey and the island of Cypress, then returned to Haifa.

At the end of the second cruise, we hired a private driver who gave us a whirlwind one-day tour of holy sites including Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum and the Jordan River. We enjoyed salads, fish, lamb chops and wine at a fine restaurant before heading to the Tel Aviv airport.

Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel
The Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel

That’s where our troubles began. A serious accident blocked the main highway to the airport so our driver chose an alternate route that took us close to the Jordan border and through Palestinian-occupied territory. We passed through checkpoints near roundabouts guarded by Israeli soldiers, who sat in booths with the long rifles raised and their fingers on the triggers. We watched as Palestinians with jobs in Israel walked by the checkpoints on their way home.

Speeding along at 90 mph on winding mountain roads, the driver told us that tour guides never took this route. He said that some Palestinians throw Molotov cocktails at Israeli cars and are shot by the soldiers. We stopped suddenly as a large herd of sheep crossed in front of us.

A large herd of sheep in the roadway in Israel
A large herd of sheep in the roadway in Israel.

When we reached the airport, we navigated the world’s toughest airport security to board a 12-hour flight back to the United States. They asked us if had control of our luggage during our entire time in Israel and whether anyone had asked to put something in our luggage for them. They asked where we had gone and the name of our tour guide, who they looked up on the internet.

When Don signaled that he couldn’t walk through the metal detectors due to his pacemaker, they asked him for documentation and an identification card for the device, which he didn’t have. They didn’t use a wand on him as they do in our country.

Three hours later, we boarded the plane for the 11:35 p.m. flight to Newark. But the plane sat at the gate as hours ticked by.

We were told that a computer software issue prevented our departure. Equipment was replaced, new software installed and the system rebooted, but error messages kept cropping up.

The delay bumped the crew into its curfew, which limits them to working a fixed number of consecutive hours.

Passengers were instructed to leave and told we would try the trip again. As we exited the gangway, passengers were stopped at the other end by an armed soldier, who ordered us to get back on the plane.

Passengers near the soldier turned around, but others in the gangway refused to budge, leading to a standoff.

About 3 a.m., we were led to an elevator and found our way to baggage claim. A pair of airport employees passed out water bottles. We asked them to recommend a hotel and they suggested finding one on Google.

Julie and Sandy decided to stay at the airport. Barbara talked to a Hilton agent in Texas who booked a room for the rest of us at the Airport Guest House in Tel Aviv. A cab driver who spoke little English took us on a half-hour cab ride to the address in a residential area where there was no hotel.

The guest house apparently was a bed-and-breakfast inn that had no desk staff available after midnight so we couldn’t get in. The driver apologized several times and we assured him that it wasn’t his fault. He returned us to the airport and we paid him $60 in U.S. cash because we had given the rest of our shekels to the tour guide.

We spent the rest of the night and the next day dozing off and on in lounge chairs, playing cards and eating McDonald’s hamburgers and other sandwiches. The flight had been rescheduled for 8 p.m. that evening.

We boarded a newer 787 Dreamliner and were assured the software issues no longer were a problem. We were hopeful as the plane left the gate and taxied toward a runway.

Then it stopped. The plane’s flight plan was rejected because French air traffic controllers just went on strike. Working with airline staff in Chicago, the crew revised the flight plan, which was rejected again. The difficulty was balancing the weight of the passengers, luggage and extra fuel needed to go around France.

A panicked woman demanded that she be allowed to get off the plane. A flight attendant explained that it would be too costly to return to the gate and let her off.

But the crew curfew issue resurfaced after several hours of delay and the plane was towed toward the terminal. It was left in on the tarmac and passengers were bused back to the terminal, where we again reclaimed our luggage.

Julie and Sandy booked rooms at a hotel that their cab driver couldn’t find. They finally reached the hotel and paid him $100. He demanded more, but they refused.

Through Expedia, Barbara booked us rooms at the Crown Plaza City Centre in Tel Aviv. After a 45-minute cab ride, we hauled our luggage into the lobby where a night clerk told us that no rooms were available despite the Expedia confirmation.

A view of downtown Tel Aviv from the Herod Hotel.
A view of downtown Tel Aviv from the Herod Hotel.

Two women with us in the lobby had the same problem and they managed to book a room at the Herod Hotel, part of an Israel hotel chain, at the beach.

After Barbara threatened to spend the night on the lobby couch, the desk clerk became more helpful. He called the Herod Hotel, verifying that rooms were available, and called another cab for us.

When the cab came, all the luggage would not fit in the trunk and the driver said he couldn’t take us. I carried a suitcase on my lap so everything would fit.

We arrived at the Herod Hotel at 4 a.m., showered and slept a few hours before enjoying a champagne buffet breakfast, our first solid meal in two days.

We had arranged a late checkout time and were back at the airport that afternoon. We passed through security and checked our bags for the third time for the 8:30 pm flight.

Fortunately, shortly before boarding was about to begin, I checked the departures board and found the gate had changed. We walked to the new gate and were bused back to the plane, still on the tarmac where it had been left the night before. This time, the flight plan through French air space was approved.

The plane had fewer passengers than on the two previous nights. Some had made other arrangements, but others may have missed the flight due to the last-minute gate change.

Passengers cheered and applauded as the plane left the runway and rose quickly into the sky.

Captain Ron Maty said it was the worst ordeal he had encountered during 32 years as a United Airlines pilot.

With a splash of humor, he said over the intercom: “Oh no! We have to go back. I forgot my wallet.”

We didn’t go back and successful flights to Newark and then to Orlando finally brought us home.

Little white cross case may be headed to U.S. Supreme Court

In a Letter to the Editor, a Village of Tamarind Grove resident suggests that the infamous little white cross case in The Villages may have to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

We need to change the rules

A Village of Lynnhaven resident contends it’s time for The Villages to update the deed compliance rules.

The cross should remain

A Village of Fernandina resident says that a little white cross at the center of a legal battle in The Villages should remain in place. Read her Letter to the Editor.

I agree that Sawgrass Grove is overcrowded and pricey

A Village of Monarch Grove resident agrees with a previous letter writer who complained that Sawgrass Grove is overcrowded and pricey.

Snarky comments about my noble name

A Village of Pennecamp resident calls out the readers making snarky comments about his “noble” name. Read his Letter to the Editor.