El Al, which means ‘reach for the skies’ in Hebrew is as old as the country it represents. The airline’s first passenger was Israel’s first president who flew from Geneva in 1948. Since then the airline has spread its wings to six continents and built an unenviable reputation for compulsory security while being a Global friend to Jews everywhere. However El Al’s history is full of exciting episodes worthy of Hollywood drama. The airline has close connections to Israel’s defence forces and has been employed in many covert operations. The airline began with ex-military aircraft but as services grew the fleet expanded. The airline is now all Boeing, and the arrival of the first 707 in 1960 coincided with El Al’s first profit. El Al, not surprisingly, has been the victim of terrorist atrocities however the airline is regularly described as the world’s most secure airline. El Al does not operate flights on the Jewish Sabbath (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) and all meals are Kosher.
Israel’s flag carrier occasionally provides memorable on-board service, but it’s as likely to be for the rudeness of staff as it is their wit. The on-board experience of El Al is just so average in every way possible. Flight attendants are generally indifferent and are highly skilled at dealing with the frequent demands of passengers who seem to be testing their limits. Their favourite method is to ignore passengers. Crew uniforms are dull, which matches the aircraft interiors, meals and corporate image of the airline.
To and from Israel, no airline can match El Al’s network, unless you want to fly on Saturday. The airline serves all parts of Europe extensively, plus North America, many Asian cities and Johannesburg. Unsurprisingly they offer no services to their Arab neighbours.
El Al is a mid priced airline. Airfares are seldom cheap, but also not too expensive. Fares include El Al’s security assurances and no doubtedly charges built in to allow for the virtual grounding of the airline for one day of the week in observance of the Sabbath. In terms of service, paying a little extra will put you on a better airline but those who want a genuinely Jewish experience from the moment they start their journey will find their El Al experience value for money.
El Al’s on board catering is pretty bad all round. Not only are meals relatively unimaginative and bland, but they are poorly presented in all classes. All catering, even in premium classes have a factory made look and taste about them. It is impossible to imagine these meals originating in a restaurant. Business Class meals can barely compare with Emirates Economy and their drinks options do not meet international standards. To describe Premium classes china and cutlery as old fashioned is too generous as quite frankly it has never been in fashion. Economy passengers dine with plastic, typically on aluminium foil. The First Class Dessert trolley however, is impressive with many mouth watering Jewish treats to help redeem the experience and add inches to the waistline.
El Al’s entertainment system is quite modern with individual seat back monitors for all classes. Their Vidibox entertainment units show a current range of Hollywood films, US sitcoms, Israeli news and other shows. There are also a large number of audio channels in Hebrew and English. While the airlines entertainment product has improved, it basically has kept up with competition, just. Their in-flight magazine is quite an interesting read and should take up 15 minutes of your flight.
The airline provides very average ground services. Electronic self-check units are available for domestic passengers going to the Red Sea resort of Eilat while international passengers can look forward to an ordinary check in service provided by staff who are seldom friendly. Baggage security is amongst the best and even outside Israel the airline’s vigilance over passenger luggage is second-to-none. While baggage may be checked for security it can still be roughly handled by poorly paid baggage handlers who really don’t care.
An El Al First Class experience is extremely underwhelming when measured against competitors. Their Platinum (Business) Class is also very ho-hum. Interiors are drab, seating design and configuration look dated and TV screens are small compared to rivals. Premium Classes may be good for passengers with a larger backside but will not satisfy those used to luxury and on-board pampering. The airlines King David Lounges are essentially nicely appointed cafes but are regularly crowded and lacking in exclusivity. Don’t expect a happy ending in their day spa.
El Al provides an all round average service for Economy passengers. Seats are reasonably comfortable and spacious, the entertainment service is adequate and meals remind you, you are in Economy. The airline has a definite Israeli feel about it. The lack of Sabbath day services can be inconvenient in the event of a delay.
Like all frequent flyer programmes El Al’s Matmid members need to do a lot of travelling before they see any reward for their loyalty. Individual points are worthless so you need a lot before you can redeem them for a flight or an upgrade. The scheme is inferior to rival programmes and it is hard to see why anyone, except business travellers, would join. Redemption ticket holders seem to be punished for their ‘free’ trip, rather than rewarded for their long loyalty. El Al is not part of any global airline alliance however a Matmid card will earn points on many individual partner airlines.
Few airlines operate with as many burdens as El Al. The airline is required to observe the Jewish law by not commencing flights on the Sabbath. Most of the airlines managers and staff are liberal Jews who think this restriction is absurd and the cause of their non-profit. The airline is also compelled to remain constantly vigilant on the security front and maintains close relations with Israel’s security services; which further increase its attractiveness as a target. And finally the airline needs to compete in a deregulated market where competitors undercut El Al’s fares while providing a superior service. However the airline’s staff are all intelligent and proactive and management do not abuse the rights of employees to the extent that airlines in the US do.
El Al is confronted with two major problems. Firstly this airline sits at the top of the wishlist for anti-Israel terrorists and secondly the airline is in financial dire straits and forced to operate older aircraft. Israel’s vigilant security services have practically neutralised terrorist threats to the airline, while the airline is gradually renewing its fleet with modern aircraft.
A functional airline delivering an unimpressive service in all classes at an average price.
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