NEWS: After American Airlines canceled service from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia, rumors circulated suggesting the carrier wished to mollify Arab business interests.
On 20 August 2015, multiple news outlets reported that American Airlines was discontinuing service from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv, effective January 2016. (That news seemed to come as a shock to individuals on airline chat forums.)
The report originated with Arrivals (an internal newsletter for American Airlines employees); a spokesman for the carrier later described the route change as “strictly a financial decision” because “[t]he route has not been profitable”:
This week, American announced that, as of January next year, we will discontinue service between PHL and Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) in Tel Aviv, Israel. This route has been a source of pride for our airline, our PHL and International teams, and our community — and we did not make this decision lightly.
There are many different factors that determine the overall success of a route. PHL-TLV operates with decent load factors, but that’s not the only — or the best — way to judge a route’s performance. We also look at overall demand and the fares customers are willing to pay. We’ve operated PHL-TLV year-round for six years and have never turned a profit in any year; we lost more than $20 million in the past year alone. At a certain point, no matter how much we want to serve a particular route, we have to make the right decision for our business.
While initial media reports simply pertained to the change in routes, a 23 August 2015 article published by the Israeli news outlet Haaretz (titled “Sources: American Airlines Dropped Israel Route to Deepen Ties With Arab Carriers”) claimed that the decision came as a result of the airline’s desire to please Arab business partners. Citing an anonymous source (and lacking any explanation as to how such a move might benefit third parties), the web site asserted:
American, the world’s largest airline by passengers flown, fleet size and revenue, said on Thursday it would end its Philadelphia-Tel Aviv route as of January. The airlines’ Israeli office was given no advanced warnings and learned about the decision from the media.
“Profitability wasn’t a problem,” said an industry source, who asked not to be identified. “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.”
American made the decision due to the OneWorld global alliance, whose members include Arab carriers like Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian and the carrier of the Muslim-majority Asian country Malaysia, asserted the source.
A 26 August 2015 article published by the The Jerusalem Post steered the unsourced speculation in an entirely different direction, surmising that a desire to placate Iran was somehow behind the decision. (Unlike Haaretz, JP didn’t bother to qualify the speculation as originating with an “industry source;” and earlier coverage from that outlet didn’t include rumors about furtive reasons the route was purportedly dropped):
American’s ties with Arab airlines through the OneWorld alliance, the article claimed, “due to the OneWorld global alliance, whose members include Arab carriers like Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian,” were at the heart of the decision.
Others speculated that, following the nuclear deal with Iran, American was trying to pave the way for a Tehran route, and that continuing flights to Israel would be a problem.
A 26 August 2015 article published by the Jewish Exponent (a Philadelpia-based publication) carried comments from locals affected by the route change, one of whom stated that the decision was anti-Semitic:
Jill Dressler also believes there was more to the decision than American is letting on. The Fort Washington 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.”
A 27 August 2015 Breitbart article (“American Airlines to End Flights to Israel”) elided the specifics of the route change in its headline, suggesting that all AA flights to Israel would cease; by 28 August 2015 the claim made its way to the Philadelphia Business Journal in a piece titled “Report: Airline cut PHL-Tel Aviv route to please Arab partners”:
Haaretz said American has flown about 95,000 passengers on the route so far this year, an increase of 2.7 percent from the same time in 2014, according to Israel Airport Authority figures.
American Airlines said it flatly denies the allegations made in the Haaretz, saying the decision to cancel the route was solely made based on financial reasons. The company said it lost $20 million on the route last year alone and it has not turned a profit on it since it began the route six years ago.
A piece published by the magazine Philadelphia on 27 August 2015 bore the same qualified verbiage in its title: “Report: American Airlines Cut Philly-to-Israel Route to Boost Ties to Arab Airlines.” However, that effort made an attempt to examine the single-source claims republished by other outlets:
Some might point to the fact that the Philly-to-Israel route was cancelled even though flights were generally full. But Norton says that’s not a good indicator of profitability because it doesn’t take into account low ticket prices or the profit margins — or yield — the company gets from each customer.
The notion that American Airlines discontinued its route from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv for political reasons appeared to stem solely from a single unsourced, anonymous comment made by an alleged “insider” to the outlet Haaretz. While many believed that the airline was undertaking the route change to please Arab partners, no one ever explained why this was likely when the carrier still runs flights from other American cities to Tel Aviv. How such a change might satisfy unspecified partners of American Airlines was never examined, nor were any particular actors identified (other than “majority-Muslim” countries, OneWorld, or perhaps Iran) as benefiting from the elimination of a purportedly financially-profitable route from a large American city. So while it’s possible American Airlines had a yet-to-be-identified political motive in discontinuing the route to Tel Aviv, no compelling information other than one individual’s anonymous comment suggested that was the case.