COMMENTARY: Who’s at the Wheel at Egged?

Something strange is happening at the Egged bus company. As a public transportation provider, the company’s priorities should be to ensure passengers are comfortable, that service is efficient and to keep up with the competition. However, in recent months, Egged has stumbled several times in this area, whether through an offensive ad campaign insinuating that chareidi passengers don’t pay fares, statements made in court after claims are filed against the company, or in response to various incidents, such as the one that occurred yesterday.

Egged is no longer a government company like it was until a decade ago, and now works in a competitive marketplace. New companies can now bid for contracts on bus routes and the public is no longer held hostage by the Egged monopoly. Naturally, the company should make serving its customers the top priority, in order to keep them.

And the customer base, whether Egged likes it or not, is largely the chareidi sector. Whereas in the general sector, public transportation is used by a much smaller proportion of the population, generally the unfortunates who cannot afford cars, in the chareidi sector it is the most common mode of getting around. This fact is known to every employee in the Egged cooperative.

As such, it would be only fitting that the company should do everything possible to improve the riding experience for its chareidi passengers. They may or may not like chareidim; it makes no difference. If Egged wants to survive the wave of competition, it has to play by the market rules.

But for some reason, they give the impression that serving the chareidi passenger has been forced on them, despite the fact that passengers pay good money for their trips to a company that needs money like oxygen.

The hostile atmosphere had trickled down to the drivers as well, as the incident yesterday in Beit Shemesh shows. The people involved broke no laws, as the law states that discrimination against passengers is forbidden, but people are allowed to ask others to move politely. But this driver quickly called the police to arrest the chareidi passengers.

And if there was any expectation that the company would condemn the driver’s behavior, especially because of the damage to the company’s image in the eyes of its customer base, spokesman Ron Ratner defended his actions and said that anyone claiming that the driver was out of line is “making a mockery.”

Has the spokesman not learned the basic rule that every public relations school teaches: that you do not ever offend your primary customer base? That even if you have a message to deliver, you should walk between the drops, not burn the tenuous bridges that are there and pour fuel over the fire?

It is unclear where the top executives of the company are; they should be banging on the table and demanding an end to what is going on. They have to realize that while media headlines are nice, their primary customer base does not even listen, read or see the general media.

Furthermore, Egged is on the verge of a massive “efficiency overhaul”; money is getting tighter all the time as more lines are privatized to other contractors. They will have to cut back on administrative positions and other staff. Our advice to the company is perhaps to overhaul the spokesman and public relations department. Something is seriously wrong there.