Life & Culture

Talking to Shai thrills me with uncertainty

Emma Shevah's trying to book flights to Israel - and there's a wedding decision to take


Anyone else had the joy of contacting El Al recently? It’s via WhatsApp, which seems a touch personal.

My skin prickles if my boss sends me WhatsApp messages. WhatsApp is for friends. She’s not my friend. El Al is not my friend either but Boy needed a flight change. Boy is our younger son —the locals called him that on a trip to Cambodia when he was 12 (“Hello Boy.” “You and Boy go Angkor Wat today?”). He is now 18 and six foot but he is likely to be Boy forever.

You message El Al: Shalom.

You get an automated message with an option for English. A couple of options later you get told to “continue with your daily routine” and they will message when it’s your turn. This can take five minutes to 24 hours so it’s likely that when they reply at 9.30pm, you miss it because you thought the office was long closed and your phone is upstairs.

You get a real person; it says “Eilan” or “Shai” in Hebrew. This person may be terse.

Me: My booking reference is X. 
The name is X.

Shai: OK

Me: Can you check you have our bookings?

Shai: yes I see

Me: Can I change the return flight please?

Shai: when for?

Me: Um, 15th? (Let me just say here that you cannot see a flight timetable. You can’t see availability or which flight is more or less expensive. You need to ask those questions and get that and only that answer.)

Shai: 1010 1335

Me: Which airport does it land in?

Shai: LHR

Me: Is there a fee?

Shai: 48 usd

Me: Is there a cheaper option?

Shai: no

Me: Is there a later flight?

Shai: 1620 1945

Me: Is that to Heathrow and is it the same price?

Shai: yes

Me: What’s the fee on a different day?

Shai: which day?

This makes it sound immediate. Sometimes you wait 20 mins for an answer. You choose a date and time because you’ve waited most of the day for a reply, and this is taking hours as — I assume — Shai talks to multiple customers.

Shai sends a link to a “secure payment form”. It feels very scammy but you pay because what else are you supposed to do? You wait ten minutes, drumming your fingers, concerned you’ve sent the money to a hacker.

Me: Shai? Are you still there?

Shai: ?

Me: Isn’t your name Shai? That’s what it says … never mind.

Shai: you all set

Me: Thank you

Shai: you welcome

It’s quite the experience. Give me a website any day, with a click-able timetable of prices, but I guess this way has a thrill of uncertainty.

I didn’t need more thrills of uncertainty though, with my daughter’s planned August wedding in Jerusalem. UK Covid cases are rising; Israel faces another lockdown; non-citizens like my mother can currently enter on August 1 (the travel rules change almost daily) but need to quarantine — for how long is anyone’s guess.

We hold a Zoom meeting — my ex-husband, the groom’s parents, the happy couple and me. Ex-husband says we should stick to the plan, but those of us travelling aren’t so sure. What if they close Ben Gurion? What if one of us — or the bride and groom — needs to isolate because someone tests positive on their plane? We could lose the money and have no wedding. We have to hold it in England.

The bride’s retreat from the call and then her return minutes later, wiping her eyes, smiling valiantly and saying it’s “honestly fine” crushes my insides. Our disappointment is mitigated by the realisation we have weeks to find a venue, a date, a caterer, band — the whole shebang — plus cancel flights, hotels and Airbnbs in Israel and tell everyone here and there of the change.

Boy flew anyway: he hasn’t seen his father or grandparents for two years. He’ll fly back with his brother for the wedding. Ex-husband’s passport has expired, but that’s his thrill of uncertainty, not mine.

It worked out fine in the end with the flight change: the link didn’t connect me to hackers and El Al are my friends. Maybe I should invite Shai to the chupah. If s/he really is called Shai.

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