It’s Not Just An Airline, It’s Israel: A Look at EL AL

An EL AL Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner on approach to London Heathrow LHR. Photo: Jonathan Sivarajah 2020

An airline born out of necessity

In 1948 two Jewish visionaries co-founded the company to bring back President Haim Weizmann stranded in Geneva with no means of getting home. A former US Air Force DC-4 was sought, a couple of couches were tied down into the cabin, a name was chosen from the Bible and voila- EL AL was born.

The airline’s history is abundant with covert airlifts carrying new immigrants to Israel from all over the world including Iraq, Iran, Yemen the USSR, and Ethiopia. The airline’s very existence remains a statement. The key thing to remember about this airline that it’s a point-to-point airline.

This means that its sole purpose is to connect Israel with the outside world and visa-versa. A six-day airline. Yes, you read correctly. A six-day airline, a Sunday to Thursday airline. Since its inception in 1948, EL AL has not operated a commercial flight on Shabbat, the Jewish rest day (from Friday to Saturday sunset). 

A Boeing 707 scanned from a Postcard. From the Jonathan Sivarajah Collection

All brands have a personality. Personifying those brands from experience of their product, branding and service paints a picture of a company.

What would EL AL be like if they were a person?

They would have no fake smiles. Beaming in confidence, a bit arrogant and cheeky. Direct as they come, hiding a heart of gold, ladling lots of care, and always dependable-like an old friend. A maternal figure, won’t ask you what you want but will tell you what you want out of genuine care and love.

My father flew EL AL in its prime during the 1970s and ’80s and fondly recalls the infectious Jewish mother stereotype which was embodied in the airline’s inflight service. Stern but loving and expressive he describes. This description falls in line with the typical description of Israelis which isn’t a coincidence.

Because of their infamous marketing campaigns, iconic head-turning uniforms, informal personal service, striking liveries, and daring security operations making headlines, the airline developed a long-standing reputation and loyalty with the older generation.

For many including myself, the sight of an EL AL aircraft abroad assures the Israeli diaspora abroad that we are not alone.

For many, EL AL is the first connection a person has with Israel. Ironically, Israel is a relatively new country that has been attracting many kinds of visitors for thousands of years.

In the first 50 years of the state aside from the visiting Jewish diaspora, the Christian and Muslim pilgrimage markets have always been key for tourism to the state. This has since dramatically developed with the state with the introduction of LGBT travel, technology and innovation, MICE and business travel, luxury travel, and city breaks. In brief, as Israel changed so has EL AL.  

Over 70 years on and now privatized, carrying the Israeli flag on the international stage is no easy feat and didn’t go unnoticed. The airline suffered countless attempted hijackings, attacks on its public presence, and boycotts and throughout those attempts, the airline has managed to become the most secure in the world. Despite successfully plowing through a muddy history, nothing could prepare the airline for the merciless Covid-19.

Pre-Covid Development

The airline was pulling all the stops for an impressive period of growth and product development. It appears to be the case that in the last 5 years EL AL has ‘woken up’. Since the introduction of the Boeing 707 to the airline’s fleet in 1961, the airline has maintained an All-Boeing Fleet.

A big change for the airline came in 2015 when an order was placed for 16 Boeing 787 Dreamliners to rejuvenate what was a crippling aging fleet of Boeing 737-700/800/ 900’s Boeing 767-300’s, 777-200’s and 747-400’s (Airports International, 2015). As of January 2021, the airline has a simplified fleet of Boeing 737 800/900, 777-200’s, and 787-8/9 aircraft (EL AL Israel Airlines, 2021).

The retrofitted Boeing 737-800 Business Class product. Photo: Jonathan Sivarajah 2019

Most of the airline’s destinations are in Europe and in order to compete with both full-service and low-cost carriers and improve service levels, the entire fleet of Boeing 737-800’s some of which are almost over 20-years old, has gone through an impressive overhaul.

The overhaul included installing 16 new ‘armchair’ Business Class seats, new slimline Economy Class seats with individual inbuilt power ports, WiFi and entertainment streaming capabilities as well as mood lighting and more extra-legroom available seating.

It can be argued that this retrofit of the 737 could indicate the airline’s premise to be a hybrid carrier. Essentially, where the front end of the aircraft could be that of a full-service carrier and behind the curtain would have multiple options to generate ancillary revenue as a low-cost carrier.

Nevertheless, EL AL is not a low-cost airline. In 2014 the airline attempted to introduce a low-cost brand “Up” which was short-lived until 2018 because of heavy overheads as well as the airline’s incapacity to operate a sub-brand (ch-aviation, 2018).

EL AL’s Business Class product on the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner at London Heathrow. Photo: Jonathan Sivarajah 2018

With the introduction of the Boeing 787 product which had already set the standard for the airline, the dated fleet of Boeing 777-200’s was also expected to have a face-lift. The abolishment of First Class expected to introduce a similar Business Class product to that of the 787, a Premium Economy cabin, and an entirely new Economy Class product expanding from a 3-3-3 configuration to a 3-4-3 configuration (Kaminski-Morrow, 2019).

In an interview with Oranit Beit Halahmy- the airline’s director in the UK and Ireland, the airline maintained that as a full-service carrier despite British Airways and Lufthansa offering ‘buy-on-board’ services that it would not introduce food for sale on board (Travelmole, 2018).

This is mainly due to their long-standing relationship with the Orthodox Jewish market who have developed trust with the airline, and they have catered accordingly. According to EL AL’s website, they offer 8 different options of Kashrut (Kosher levels) in accordance with each passenger’s religious requirements (EL AL Israel Airlines, 2021).

Israel is also notorious for its health-conscious foodie population. It’s estimated that 5% of the population is vegetarian and/or vegan (Berger, 2018). The airline has paid close attention to its meal service being diverse in options and collaborating with chefs and experts to appeal to all audiences.

EL AL’s ground experience has always been a matter of controversy. Depending on your departure ppint, you might find yourself spending more time at the airport than inflight when flying EL AL.

Israeli law requires all passengers flying on Israeli carriers, to check-in for their flight 3 hours prior to departure to be interviewed. EL AL’s check-in areas at most airports are dedicated, guarded, and tucked away which oddly creates an exclusive experience.

I’ve read so many opinions about its controversial security procedure and the various methods to ‘endure it’. As someone who is interviewed at least 12 times a year by the security service, I can reveal the big secret- honesty.

Security agents are hired by the Israeli government to profile and analyze behavior and character. This may come across as unnerving to passengers and may deter them from choosing an Israeli carrier when in fact, regardless of which airline you chose to fly to Israel with, every passenger is subject to the same procedure when departing Israel (Raz-Chaimovitch, 2019).  

Sign at Heathrow pointing to EL AL’s King David Lounge. Photo: Jonathan Sivarajah 2018

Maintaining its stance as a full-service carrier, the airline paid particular attention to its London Heathrow operation. As of February 2019, the airline was competing with both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, both airlines who are infamous for their hard premium product and lounges.

After moving from the now-closed Terminal 1 to Terminal 4, EL AL maintained its service promise by offering its own new dedicated lounge with improved kosher catering and exclusive gate area, one of the few foreign carriers in the UK to have their own premises (Caswell, 2016).

However, as mentioned it’s the human element that sets the airline apart from its competition.

A Boeing 777-200 4X-ECE being pushed back at London Heathrow’s Terminal 4. Photo: Jonathan Sivarajah 2015

Naturally, people are motivated by money. And people will do their duties based on monetary value and remuneration. I can describe the staff morale of the airline as that of the Kibbutz movement.

The Kibbutz movement was an early Israeli socialist movement where everybody would work collectively to build an organization where everyone is equally valued with a greater aim to develop the State of Israel (The Jewish Agency for Israel, n.d.).

Part of the reason why I hold EL AL in such high regard is because of the dedication and affection the staff has for the airline.

The airline employs a significantly diverse workforce at airports around the globe and whilst they may not have a direct connection to the State of Israel, they understand the significance of the carrier and their passion and dedication is demonstrated.

I can say that the uniformed staff genuinely love and care about the airline, and from my own experience will go out of their way to represent and resolve situations to the best of their abilities despite factors that are out of their control.

Route Network Growth and Challenges

The Tel Aviv skyline, viewed from Jaffa, Israel. Photo: Jonathan Sivarajah 2017

In 2012, Israel signed the Open Skies agreement with the European Union. Essentially this would open a floodgate for European carriers to operate flights to Israel which in turn heavily affected EL AL’s market share at Ben Gurion Airport (Hartman, 2012).

This meant that the airline had to compete with hub and spoke carriers such as Turkish Airlines whom just a few years after the agreement was signed, became the most favored foreign carrier in Tel Aviv (Blumenkrantz, 2018).

Connecting traffic from Tel Aviv is EL AL’s biggest threat to its long-haul network. Neighboring Royal Jordanian used Tel Aviv as a line to feed traffic onto its global network where EL AL and other Israeli carriers couldn’t have access to.

Taking the UK as an example, British Airways and recently Virgin Atlantic appear to use Tel Aviv because of connecting traffic via LHR to destinations in North and South America.

Israelis are travel-hungry, and the Jewish diaspora is spread far and wide. The options made available to them by the agreement has increased competition dramatically.

Upon the Open Skies agreement, EL AL became rather aggressive with its growth and were very much geared up to set their mark on the globe.

Following the agreement, the airline took delivery of the Boeing 737-900, which became the backbone of the airline’s European operations, allowing it to compete with the likes of low-cost carriers Easyjet, Wizzair, and Ryanair (Boeing, 2013).

An example of its fierce competitiveness can be demonstrated in its UK and Ireland operations.

During peak seasons such as Passover, Easter, Summer Holidays, Rosh Hashana and Hannukah EL AL would operate up to 6 flights a day from both London Heathrow and London Luton opting for frequency to increase choice over capacity (routesonline, 2014).

In 2019 the airline reintroduced flights to Manchester after an 18-year hiatus. The summer of 2020 was supposed to see the reintroduction of flights to Stansted, being the third EL AL presence in London (Reid, 2020).

At the World Travel Market 2019, the airline also formally announced its plans to operate 3 weekly scheduled flights to Dublin from May 2020, where in the past they had operated charter flights under its subsidiary Sun D’or (Flood, 2020).

If the pandemic hadn’t occurred, at any given point in the summer schedule the airline would have operated up to 16 flights a day to and from the UK and Ireland.

But the stumbling block for EL AL’s real growth was its long-haul network. The newly delivered Dreamliner’s enabled the airline to compete with British Airways, United Airlines, Delta and American. The airline looked west in the last 5 years.

In addition to regular flights to New York (JFK), Newark (EWR), and Los Angeles (LAX) the years that followed saw the introduction of new direct routes such as Boston (BOS), Miami (MIA), Las Vegas (LAS), San Francisco (SFO) and Orlando (MCO). Whilst looking west, there was still the issue with the East.

Due to geopolitical reasons, EL AL’s Asian routes often involved a mere 3-hour detour through the Red Sea in order to reach Bangkok (BKK) and Mumbai (BOM).

This is where neighboring airlines such as Turkish Airlines and Royal Jordanian had an advantage, relying on EL AL’s lack of access to feed their vast global network and alliance partners.

However, that didn’t stop the carrier, In May 2020 the airline announced plans to launch a new route to Tokyo (NRT) (Israel Hayom, 2020). The Far East until very recently due to the signing of the Abraham Accords, had been a difficult market to access for the airline due to routes crossing the Arabian Peninsula (Kershner, 2018).

Accessibility and ease of reaching a destination is key to any airline. It’s evident that competing connecting carriers have the advantage of alliance partnerships and connectivity.

EL AL is an isolated case when it concerns alliances and is isolated by politics. The airline cannot join an alliance of carriers by unanimous agreement. There are three main alliances (One World, Star Alliance, and Sky Team), out of the three alliances 5 airlines belong to countries that do not recognize or have relations with Israel.

Therefore, there is no possibility of being in an alliance when 5 carriers cannot diplomatically associate with EL AL. As a result, the airline relies heavily on its codeshare agreements with other carriers of which as of January 2021 there are 17 (EL AL Israel Airlines, 2021).

Developments during Covid-19

4X-EKU, a Boeing 737-800 in EL AL’s maintenance hangar at Ben Gurion Airport. Photo: Jonathan Sivarajah 2019

EL AL had so much potential. It’s heart-wrenching to see that all the amazing plans they had were simply flushed away. Sadly, the pandemic alone wasn’t the only reason that they were affected so badly as a lot of the damage has sadly been self-inflicted. EL AL’s financial situation was dire prior to the pandemic.

Having previously been publicly owned, the organisational structure of the carrier had allowed for a more fluid career progression and more contractual stability. The airline has been privately owned since 2004 (EL AL Israel Airlines, 2021).

Israel requires all its citizens to participate in military service. It’s typical within Israeli society that if you have obtained a senior or high-ranking position in the IDF, senior job opportunities are easier to come by.

For many years it was the case that EL AL would recruit its pilots directly from the Israeli Air Force who carried a significantly higher price tag than the world’s airlines.

On average EL AL’s 630 pilots were earning up to the equivalent of £22,000 a month which is 42% of the airline’s total salaries (The Jerusalem Post, 2020)- I’ll let you do the maths.

Where changes have been made to the workforce made to streamline costs, EL AL’s 70-year history is riddled with strikes and demonstrations by all aspects of its workforce excluding management.

‘Balagan’ is a slang Hebrew term with Slavic roots and describes a hectic mess that is synonymous with the airline’s organizational structure and culture. An entirely new article would have to be produced just to analyze the labour situation of the airline and as I’m not a Human Resources specialist, I cannot make an educated judgement.

Despite the deterioration of labor relations, the Coronavirus pandemic had unleashed a strength in EL AL which they were able to demonstrate to the world as they have done throughout their history.

Hundreds of repatriation flights were launched to destinations previously commercially unreachable by the carrier. Throughout the summer flights were operated to and from Manila, Perth, Melbourne, Peru, Bogota, Panama, Mexico City, San Jose, and Houston.

These are destinations where predominantly young Israeli backpackers travel to and a great example of how well-traveled, they are. Local Jewish communities and enthusiasts flocked in excitement to airports to simply catch a glimpse of the aircraft.

Videos were captured of EL AL crew chanting with passengers as aircraft touched down in Israel (The Yeshiva World, 2020). It exposed a beautiful character and love the public has for EL AL. It’s just saddening it had to take a pandemic for that to be evident.  

In a desperate bid to earn some revenue, the airline’s catering arm Tamam innovatively created a new service. Tamam which usually produces up to 40,000 meals a day began offering its airline meals as a take-away service in Israel.

Given the improvement in EL AL’s catering, the variety of special dietary options, and Israel’s lockdown it became a popular option in which they reinvented themselves to cater for an unfavorable circumstance (The Jerusalem Post, 2020).

Until September 2020, EL AL had been owned and controlled by the Mozes-Borovitz family. The family has significant influence in a lot of Israel’s media running newspapers and public relations companies, also owned a consortium ‘Knafaim’ which owned aviation and managed companies in Israel including EL AL and previously Arkia.

As of January 2021, the State of Israel has decreased its share from 44% to 14%, and a new controlling shareholder named. 27-year-old Eli Rozenberg. Rozenberg is a 27-year-old yeshiva student, son of an American Healthcare mogul (Raz-Chaimovitch, 2020).

There has been very little revelation as to Mr. Rozenberg’s intention with the company, but I can only convey my goodwill and best wishes for accepting the laborious task which is EL AL.

However, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom. A silver lining appeared amidst all the chaos of the virus. The Trump administration coordinated the signing of the Abraham Accords which confirmed recognition and normalisation of Israel by the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Next thing you know, EL AL is on center stage carrying Jared Kushner and his team on an EL AL Boeing 737-900 from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi. EL AL was operating up to 14 weekly flights to and from Dubai (DXB) that was until Israel entered a second national lockdown in January 2021 (Globes, 2021).

What might happen?

Airlines have actively informed their customers and audiences as to their actions and plans throughout the pandemic, yet EL AL have remained almost silent apart from a number of schedule changes.

I think the next few years will see a much smaller EL AL. Focusing on the UK as an example, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism has been incredibly proactive in ensuring public and travel trade confidence in travel to Israel as well as the measures that are being taken to prepare for the new normal.

Sharon Ehrlich Bershadsky, the director of the Israel Government Tourist Office of the United Kingdom and Ireland spoke with Travel Tech about innovation and marketing efforts they are taking to prepare for traffic to Israel and they are confident about the influx post-pandemic (Bebchuk, 2021).

Considering that EL AL currently has 15% government ownership, one can only hope that they will be proactive enough to follow suit by engaging with the travel-trade to assure them that they will be on hand.

Given the circumstances of the Abraham Accords, Emirates has announced it will be announcing direct flights to Tel Aviv (Boon, 2021). As mentioned, connecting flights are a major concern for EL AL, and Israelis love to travel.

Therefore, I believe given the recent efforts of growth for the carrier, I wouldn’t be surprised if more routes will open eastbound to compete with the Gulf carriers. This could even open the opportunity of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) being used as a transfer hub from West to East.

The airline recently signed an agreement with Etihad to work together to enhance business operations, enhance the customer experience, and share knowledge.

As the globe turns and time changes there’s one thing that doesn’t. EL AL is still a six-day airline. There are approximately 52 and even 53 Saturdays a year. That’s approximately 1272 hours a year where EL AL doesn’t make money.

In the past, even a hint of launching flights on Shabbat caused uproar amongst the more religious Jewish customers. The only way for EL AL to have means to breakeven the cost of keeping an aircraft grounded was to lease the aircraft by its subsidiary charter operation Sun D’or.

This means came to an end in mid-January 2021 when it was revealed that Sun D’or in addition to EL AL, changed its policy on operating flights on Shabbat (Raz Chaimovitch, 2021).

Although a reason was not provided for this action, it is of no surprise considering EL AL’s new controlling shareholder Rozenberg is of an Orthodox Jewish background who may have wanted to begin by influencing his own personal beliefs on the ailing carrier.

Perhaps these are telling signs for the EL AL of the future? Maybe EL AL will truly become a fully kosher airline?

Why does EL AL need to survive? And what can it do to improve?

EL AL’s fleet at Ben Gurion Airport. Photo: Jonathan Sivarajah 2020

It’s clear that the airline has many external factors to consider but the key issues facing the carrier can be resolved. The very need for this article to inform the public about EL AL is in itself a means for improvement.

I’ve seen first-hand the airline’s wonderful efforts to market to Israeli audiences with fantastic engaging campaigns and social media stints by their talented marketing teams. However, unless you can understand Hebrew and live in Israel it’s virtually useless on the global stage.

The airline has to be forward-thinking and equally invest in a brand strategy that drives inbound traffic. This means creating and deploying campaigns to wider audiences.

Geeky is the new sexy, the customer is king, and information is queen. EL AL has a rich brand history and a very enthusiastic following which they could use to their advantage but fail to do so. The airline needs to communicate with the world and needs to do so effectively.

EL AL has loyalty but is unable to maintain that loyalty from its customers abroad. The Matmid Frequent Flyer Club is EL AL’s loyalty scheme which is about as useful to somebody living outside Israel as a fork is to a bowl of soup. In brief, it’s very hard to earn and utilize those points unless you’re spending in excess of £1000’s a year.

In Israel, they launched Fly Card, a Diners Club card in which the airline considers it as part of its core business with over a quarter of a million Israelis are now part of the scheme.

The airline’s CEO of its Frequent Flyer Club even highlighted the value of the airline’s upper leisure market and the importance of loyalty to the airline (Raz Chaimovitch, 2019).

The airline needs to collaborate with global partners that perhaps may have solutions to access other loyalty schemes that could be of benefit to their business model. Points and loyalty have changed the way the world travels and it’s imperative that EL AL recognizes this.

Product-wise I’ve made it evident that positive changes are being made to the hard product (e.g. the seat and catering) but where the airline thrives on its personal service there needs to be a compromise for refinement and structure.

For example, it has been suggested that the airline is shifting towards a hybrid model, offering premium services towards the front of the aircraft and basic services towards the rear. The biggest challenge is creating a ‘front-end’ premium experience that essentially sells itself.

Every element from finding information about the airline through to arriving at the destination has to be taken into consideration in order to develop the customer experience.

The average traveler is becoming more knowledgeable each day and the expectations are constantly rising and changing. This is where I believe investment and research into its customer-facing roles will be key to developing the product.

Having worked in an airport environment and represented both EL AL and British Airways, customer-facing staff spot potential flaws in the product that go unnoticed by management. 

Israel is ever changing. And the passenger types that travel to Israel are as dynamic as the country. The premise of this article has depicted that mainly Jewish people visit Israel when the statistics tell a very different story.

In 2020, a report was published by the Israeli Government Tourist Office that in the year 2019, 74.4% of total visitors were recorded as identifying as non-Jewish, a majority of which identifying as Christian or with no affiliation.

More than half of visitors 56.1% growth on the year before visited Israel for the first time indicating the popularity of the destination.

However, 29.4% majority of visitors were from the visiting friends and relative’s category, merely surpassing tourism and sightseeing by 4% (Mertens Hoffman Management Consultants LTD, 2020).

The information clearly indicates that despite there still being an 18% of traffic driven by faith (pilgrimage) that gone are the days of visiting Israel for purely holy purposes. A more diverse traffic is enroute and this means the product and marketing has to appeal to a more diverse audience.

As mentioned, the move to perhaps solidify and strengthen the rules against flying on Shabbat indicates that the airline may take a course of action where non-Jewish passengers may not feel welcomed onboard.

This is dangerous and must be avoided at all costs if EL AL wishes to survive as a modern Israeli carrier in a global environment. It must continue to cater to the needs of everyone that travels to Israel as a point-to-point carrier or else it will fail to grasp the attention of the forever growing dynamic travel and tourism to the country.

It has been made clear that the Ministry of Tourism has no intentions of being belittled by the virus and will continue efforts to bring more diverse traffic to Israel and it would be beyond a shame for its own national carrier to miss out.    

In Israel there’s a famous lyric written by poet Ehud Manor- I don’t have any other country. But let me rephrase that – I don’t have any other airline.

Without EL AL when the world is turned upside down, Israelis, Jews, tourists, and people in crisis and left behind where other carriers have left them abandoned. I care about EL AL and always have done.

I want to see an EL AL that is successful, all-embracing, and dynamic. An airline that embraces its personality, values, and promise in everything that it does. I’m positive that day will come but it’s a change that must occur from the very top.

This is small to medium-sized carrier with a rich history and loyal following which has so much potential. Israel and it’s half a million diaspora abroad crave an airline that it can be openly proud of. Israel is a melting pot of innovation, creativity, tradition, and fun.

The airline needs to find its niche, embrace its flaws, and really live up to its slogan- It’s not just an airline, It’s Israel.


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Personal Introduction:

Jonathan Sivarajah has eight years of travel industry experience. Encompassing airline sales and marketing, travel agencies, tour operators, ground handling, and travel-trade media. As an enthusiast, collector, and past intern he has worked closely with EL AL Israel Airlines on a number of projects since 2014. His family has been operating in the UK-Israel travel-trade for over 40 years and regularly travels monthly between London and Tel Aviv. Jonathan graduated from Coventry University with BSc Hons in Aviation Management in 2018. 

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