Call it a tour of the world’s hotspots: When you’re in Nigeria writing about Boko Haram, and you have to get back to Israel, which is in the middle of a bitter operation in Gaza, and Turkish Airlines refuses to fly you out of Turkey (as recounted in my previous dispatch), what’s the best option? Fly through Ukraine, of course.
After all, if there’s one airline that refuses to let the missiles Gaza is shooting at the airport deter them, it should be Ukraine International Airlines, which is dealing with its own threat of missiles from separatists who downed Malaysian flight MH17 last week.
There comes a time after approximately 70 or so hours in transit when you just have to throw in the towel. I was one of approximately 2,500 Israelis stuck in the Istanbul airport when many international airlines canceled their flights to Israel over concerns of rockets from Gaza. The rumors of Foreign Ministry chartered flights that eventually shuttled Israelis from Athens to Tel Aviv were still 18 hours away, and many people figured the chartered flights would cost money as well. I couldn’t imagine standing in line for one more minute, trying to get from counter to counter, being shuffled around Ataturk Airport. So, frazzled and frustrated, I decided my best option was just to get out of Turkey as fast as possible.
“I don’t care where I stop over, just get me to Tel Aviv,” I said, slapping my credit card down on the counter of the ticket office at the Istanbul Airport. Who uses these last-minute ticket counters, anyway? I had assumed they were only for criminals fleeing the country. But here I was, desperate, tired, angry, and about to pay an obscene amount of money to get out of Turkey.
“Well, there’s one flight, I think I can still get you on it, but I’m not sure, because it takes off in 35 minutes,” the woman at the ticket counter said.
“Put me on it,” I said. “Wait, how much? And where does it fly through?”
“It’s Ukrainian Airways. There’s a five-hour stopover in Odessa.”
I laughed. After all, what can you do but laugh at a situation like this? There’s probably only one place in the world that people think is more dangerous than Israel to fly commercial aircraft, and that would be Ukraine. But after Turkish Airlines’ despicable behavior over the past three days, I was ready to take desperate measures.
Ukraine is my only way back to Israel? Ukraine it is. It makes my tour of conflict hot spots more complete.
And kudos to Ukraine International Airlines, a lovely airline which still gives out a meal on a three-hour flight. The Odessa airport may only be three rooms with no air conditioning, but there was free wi-fi. Some Israeli businessmen I befriended were able to leave the airport and spend a few hours tanning on an exclusive Odessa beach with what they swore were Ukrainian supermodels. And the flights both from Turkey and from Odessa took off on time, with friendly flight attendants and relatively few snafus.
Eventually the Foreign Ministry did pick up the stranded Israelis in Athens, flying them home free of charge, and everyone got home in time for Shabbat. I guess I’ll know for next time that Foreign Ministry flights are free.
When the wheels touched down in Tel Aviv, the entire plane cheered. Not the polite applause that Israelis sometimes give when a plane lands, but a stadium-ready roar that our saga was finally over. Thanks, Ukraine, for understanding what it’s like to still fly planes in the middle of a current event hot spot. I couldn’t have gotten home without you.