MIAMI — The Hebrew word “Shalom” means “Welcome” or “Hello.” On November 1, 2017, South Florida said Shalom again to El Al Israel Airlines, after a nearly nine-year absence.
El Al is the only airline to have ever operated nonstop flights between South Florida and Israel. During the heights of the worldwide recession in September 2009, the direct flights operated by Boeing 767-300ERs between Miami International Airport (MIA) and Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV) were discontinued.
When El Al re-introduced direct service between Miami and Israel, it transcended the typical new airline and new route inaugural. In both places, it was front-page news covered by a massive contingent of press.
To make the occasion, El Al, the State of Israel, and Miami-Dade Country trotted out numerous dignitaries underscoring the significance of the event. What made this inaugural so significant? The Israeli Counsel General of Miami Lior Haiat.
“This is a natural connection. Miami is the closest place to Israel in the United States,” VIP Rabbi Yisrael Meir, the former Chief Rabbi of Tel Avid and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel remarked.
“This is a bridge between all the diaspora. There are so many Jews and friends of Israel in Miami. Moses spent 40 years in the desert to see the Holy Land but never got to step foot in Israel. He was not lucky, but those people who are going on this airplane get to see what Moses didn’t get to see. Let’s meet in Israel and live in peace, friendship, brotherhood, and love,” added Rabbi Yisrael Meir.
With such ties existing between South Florida and Israel, one would think restarting the route would seem to be an obvious, no-brainer; but that would be a half-truth.
“This has been one of the toughest negotiations with any airline, but it is worth it as Miami has one of the largest Jewish populations in America. This is about connecting two great nations and two great areas. We want to connect the startup and entrepreneurship activities between Miami and Israel,” said Miami Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Indeed, many consider Miami and Tel Aviv sister cities that share much in common.
Nevertheless, things moved very quickly with negotiations between Miami Dade County Officials and El Al only commencing in February 2017 with the route being rapidly announced in May 2017. David Maimon, El Al’s CEO said: “This new route was completed in 5 months thanks to efforts of MIA and Miami Dade. I want to offer a blessing for this special occasion. It will be a success.”
Outgoing Miami Dade Aviation Director, Emilio Gonzalez, was equally exuberant: “This is a day we have been working on for years. MIA has grown. We are not only the gateway to Latin America but now a gateway to the world. This is the seventh new carrier this year alone, and last year we added six new airlines. With 107 airlines, no other U.S. airport has more airlines.”
Indeed, El Al is the third airline operating nonstop passenger service between South Florida and the Middle East. Qatar began direct service between MIA and Doha in 2014. This route benefited from both American Airlines and Qatar being members of OneWorld Alliance, though their relationship is rife with tension.
Emirates commenced nonstops between Ft. Lauderdale and Dubai in December 2016, code-sharing with JetBlue. El Al has no such advantage. Nor is its Matmid Loyalty Program, which costs a fee to enroll in, a world beater regarding mileage programs. Choosing or perhaps chosen to go it alone, El Al isn’t a member of an alliance and doesn’t offer many code-shares.
For nearly the last decade, most South Floridians traveling to Israel were forced to connect with United at Newark, Delta at New York JFK, or El Al at Newark and JFK. American discontinued its Philadelphia – Tel Aviv service shortly after its merger with US Airways was complete.
El Al’s major competition at Miami comes surprisingly via Icelandic low-cost long-haul airline. WOW, the Reykjavik-based carrier operates a one-stop transfer service between Miami and Tel Aviv. When WOW introduced service to Miami, the onward connection to Tel Aviv figured heavily into their plans.
READ MORE: WOW Air To Begin Flights To Tel Aviv
Miami International joins a very select group of El Al destinations in North America including New York City John F. Kennedy, Newark, Los Angles, Boston, and Toronto.
To promote the new service, El Al and the Israeli Tourist Board ran an extensive marketing campaign, blanketing both Israel and South Florida, with a particular emphasis on social media, television, and print along with significant public relations efforts.
If the first flight was any indication, with a load factor of over 93 percent, the three flights per week frequency could see expansion.
One day El Al will never operate on is the Jewish Sabbath and significant holy days such as Yom Kippur. For this reason, El Al aircraft are required to arrive four hours before the beginning of Shabbat and can’t depart until four hours after the religious event ends.
When the airline announced its intention to fly on the Sabbath in the early 2000s following privatization, the outcry was vociferous. The protests against Israel’s flag carrier violating the Sabbath were particularly heated in Israel’s influential Orthodox Jewish community.
El Al quickly rescinded those plans; however, their leisure subsidiary Sun D’Or does operate on the Sabbath.
These operational restrictions and enhanced security procedures don’t help the airline’s balance sheet but certainly make El Al a secure and unique method of traveling to the Holy Land.
The Inaugural Flight
I arrived at Miami International Airport three hours before departure to cover the media event and party at the gate. The ticket counters were overwhelmed with festive decorations, but most importantly swarms of passengers. Check-in was where the real El Al adventure would begin.
El Al is renowned as the world’s most secure airline. It uses extensive security screening. They are the only airline whose airplanes are equipped with anti-missile defense and missile approach warning systems.
All checked luggage is required to not only be screened but tested for the presence of explosives in a pressurized compression chamber. On the ground, security vehicles escort all aircraft from the taxiway to the gate and vice versa upon departure. Security guards stationed on the ramp keep watch over El Al aircraft on the tarmac.
Onboard, multiple undercover Sky Marshalls carrying concealed firearms fly on every international flight. Most El Al pilots are former Israeli Air Force (IDAF) pilots, consistent with the two-year compulsory military service for most Israelis.
All El Al cockpits have double doors separating the flight deck from the passenger cabin. Reinforced steel floors are separating the passenger cabin from the baggage hold.
For an extra measure of security and control, El Al doesn’t outsource nearly as much airport operations as do other airlines. Even with only three flights per week, El Al employs over twenty staff at MIA. In contrast, most airlines operating low-frequency flights including domestic turn to out-of-house outsourcing for airport ops.
El Al doesn’t disclose its security procedures for a good reason but to good effect. Only one El Al airline flight has ever been successfully hijacked. This was back in 1968, and there were no fatalities.
My first brush with El Al’s intense attention to security began pre-check-in. Every passenger is subjected to a security screening of a battery of questions. Even as a guest of the airline, I was no exception to this probing scrutiny.
El Al staff are trained in elaborate forms of questioning, looking for suspicious behavior and answers in the name of flight safety. Some of these questions can be considered quite invasive and personal. In my opinion, the ends justify the means.
During my interrogation, I was asked “Are you Jewish?” to which I replied “yes.” They asked me “If and where I was my Bar Mitzvahed?” But it didn’t stop there. The agent wanted to know my son’s Jewish name and if he attended Hebrew School.
I expected all this. But what really surprised me was when I was flagged for carrying a U.S. passport in an Air Canada passport holder. I was politely told that “This is somewhat concerning.”
The El Al agent proceeded to take my passport to “check with my colleague,” but shortly returned and warmly beckoned me over to Business Class check-in with parting words “Enjoy your flight. We’re happy to have you.” Rather than dissuade me, I only felt safer and more secure.
Following a quick check-in at Business Cabin, I was given a pass to the shared premium lounge at MIA’s Terminal J, but I had an inaugural event to attend!
On arrival at the gate, a festive and crowded party was in full swing – the likes of which I had never seen before. Oh, sure there were the compulsory cakes, speeches, proclamations, exchanges of gifts, and tchotchkes. But seeing an airline’s crew, agents, and passengers dancing the hora was a sight I won’t soon forget.
The Mayor of Miami Dade County proclaimed November 1, 2017, as Israel Day. The mood, to put it mildly, was festive. As a proud Jew, I felt goosebumps at the singing of the Israeli and U.S. national anthems. I didn’t want it to end.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the party would continue longer than originally planned. LY018, initially scheduled for an 11:40 departure would be delayed over and over again.
This triggered some rumors going around that the new caterer caused this delay. I believe El Al’s fastidious to security played a role as well, but of course, that was never verified.
Many El Al regulars and in fact the staff took it in stride. After all, Tel Aviv is not considered an onward connecting hub. A few passengers joked that “El Al means ‘Every Landing Always Late’.”
Finally, an hour and fifteen minutes late, the boarding process was nearly ready to begin. Surprisingly for an airline with such intense security screening measures, my passport wasn’t requested at boarding.
To The Skies: LY018
I was authorized to pre-boarded to take photographs, so I was unable to participate in the boarding process. Our 777-200ER named “Sderot,” one of the nine 777s in El Al’s all-Boeing fleet, was delivered in 2007.
Surprisingly given their high loads, El Al does not operate 777-300ERs; with that role going to the 747s for now. Our particular conveyance was the first El Al aircraft to be fitted with the then-new upgraded cabin, which has just recently been superseded on the new 787 fleet. Neither the 747 or 777 fleet has received the upgrade, with no word on when / if that will occur.
Upon my boarding, the crew was busy making final cabin preparations with military precision. Would this highly choreographed group be brusque, “all business” crew El Al was known for, or was that an antiquated cliché’ reputation?
Right from the start, this very warm, hospitable, and enthusiastic thirteen-strong team vanquished that perception. El Al had positioned the crew from Los Angeles since this was the airline’s first outbound flight from Miami. An early spoiler alert: this cabin crew was hands-down the highlight of the flight.
I quickly made my way to the back of the aircraft to survey the 279 seat cabin. Economy is never a super roomy situation in a 777, but contrary to the new ten-abreast standard, El Al has resisted the urge for now to densify the 777 cabin, and stuck with nine-abreast in a 3-3-3 configuration, retaining 18” seat width.
The Economy seats feel a bit firm for my taste, but pitch is reasonable and roomier than many competitors at 32”. There is a seatback AVOD IFE, USB, and AC power at every seat.
Each of the Y seats was sporting a commemorative Miami logo emblazoned headrests. Other than these and some Miami branded mints on the seats; there was no real indication that this was a special flight. I would quickly find out that this was the “least inaugural” inaugural I have ever been.
The absence of an extended legroom Economy seating option or Premium Economy Cabin is conspicuous in this day and age. The Economy Comfort Cabin has materialized on El Al’s new 787s and will be expanded to the 777s as those cabins are retrofitted to the new standard.
Before heading to my Business Class seat, I made a beeline to the pointy part of the plane to check out what is increasingly becoming an anomaly – an International First Class Cabin.
El Al’s 777 First Class Cabin is limited to just six seats in a single row 2-2-2 configuration that wouldn’t even measure up to today’s 1-2-1 Business Class setup. The six F seats do lay flat and at 23” wide and 77” pitch are very comfortable. The First Class Cabin has been phased out on the new 787s.
With boarding underway, I made my way to seat 11C in the second of 777’s two Business Cabins. The whole cabin was a mid-2000s time warp, but J class in 2-3-2 took especially flux capacitored me back a decade.
The thirty-five angle-flat seats feature a generous 62” pitch but are narrow at only 19.5” wide. This is narrower than some airlines’ domestic First Class seats. The crowded feeling of these two cabins was only compounded by the fact that both cabins were completely full.
Once at my seat, I was offered nuts, pre-departure drinks, and an amenity kit. But the hospitality was already showing as in-flight service manager, Yoav Hoffman personally introduced himself to every passenger.
This definitely wasn’t the old, indifferent El Al I had always heard about: “We pay a lot of attention to hospitality. We have always had camaraderie and been a family. We pay more attention to the customer now. The reason people fly with us is that there is a feeling of being in Israel the second you step onboard,” said a beaming Hoffman.
It was disclosed that team leaders specially selected this crew for being among the airline’s best of the best. He asserted that this wasn’t an easy task given the high quality of El Al’s cabin crews.
Finally, we pushed back at 14:32 local time – inauspiciously a full ninety minutes late. By 15:00 we were airborne for our 11 hours, 40-minute flight across the Atlantic where we would make landfall over Portugal.
Time to Dine
Twenty minutes into the flight the drinks service began in earnest. Israeli wines are at the epicenter of the airline’s in-flight catering program, and this would be on full display throughout the flight.
The days of the Mogen David and Manischevitz cliches are long gone, though the jokes remain. Over the last thirty years, the wine industry has emerged as a point of pride in Israel. As the nation has become renowned for its wines, so has its flag carrier.
El Al employs its own in-house sommelier, Yair Haidu. El Al’s Business Class wine selection was crowned best in the world for two consecutive years. They serve only Israeli wines onboard, including a wine of the month. I requested my own “wine flight” tasting of all the labels on offer. My palettes partake of the grape can confirm they were all exceptional.
- Mediterranean, Carmel Wines
- Merlot “Marana Vineyard,” Recanti winery 2014
- Shiraz, Dalton winery, 2016
- Blanc de Blancs, Golan Heights Winery 2098
- Chardonnay, Tabor Winery, 2016
- Sauvignon Blanc, Yarden, Golan Heights Winery
- Gewurztraminer, HeightsWine”, Golan Heights Winery 2016
- Ramot Natfaly
An hour into the flight, the meal service began. Given Israel’s emergence as a haven for foodies and wine aficionados, my expectations for the culinary part of our voyage had high levels. The food service was a complete letdown in nearly every possible way.
All courses were served at once on a single tray. On an eleven-hour flight, a multi-course service would have been a welcome distraction. With the destination as sybarite as Israel, an adventurous and Mediterranean meal would have been expected as well.
Hummus spread doesn’t make a meal “Mediterranean” in my book. Mediterranean meals, however, are offered on flights originating from Israel.
On El Al, there is no need to pre-order a special Kosher Meal – They all are! All El Al meals are prepared under the strict supervision of Orthodox Union Kosher. This of course means, you cannot combine meat and dairy in the same kitchen, much less on the same tray.
So hummus and olive oil are substitutes for butter. Conversely, on a breakfast flight where milk is present for coffee or cereal, no meat is offered. Though the Molly’s Gourmet menu was as pedestrian could be, the Beef Stroganoff dish I sampled was moist and tasty.
- Fresh lettuce salad, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, herb vinaigrette
- Roasted eggplant, tuna salad, capers vinaigrette, cherry tomatoes in lemon juice
MAIN COURSE CHOICE:
- Beef stroganoff, mashed potatoes, steamed green beans
- Grilled chicken thigh, penne pasta with arrabiata sauce
- Roasted salmon, yellow rice with zucchini and carrots broccoli, tomato with herbs
- Delicious chocolate Bon Bons
- Fresh fruit
With some time to burn before the ZZZ’s set in, it was time for another flashback experience – the in-flight entertainment system. This slow, lagging touch screen user interface and clunky remote did not leave me nostalgic for 2007.
However, the catalog was deep and current enough with 142 movie titles, 42 TV episodes, and 225 albums. There was also an abundant trove of duty-free, Israeli content, and games.
Israel is now one of the world’s leading tech hubs. But in the air on most of El Al’s fleet, it’s still 2007. There’s no in-flight internet connectivity or current generation IFE, except for the new 787. This omission, one not unique to El Al in long-haul, will be remedied as in-flight connectivity is installed on the rest of the fleet over time.
After the meal service, the cabin crew employed soothing blue mood lighting that provided a nice ambiance to drift off to sleep. I tend to sleep with my head elevated on my side, so the much-maligned angled flat seats have never been an issue for me.
I’m comfortable sleeping on a firm futon – which had similar padding to these seats. I managed to pack a very restful six hours of sleep.
As the sun gently peeked through the mostly dark cabin, the gentle cacophony of clinking plates and the open and closing of lavatory doors indicated our approaching arrival. But first, it was time to get the day started off right with breakfast.
This time we were treated to an authentic Israeli breakfast — dairy sans meat due to Kosher restrictions. What Israeli breakfasts lack for carnivores, they more than makeup for it in carbs. The nation is a pastry paradise, and their flag carrier is no exception. Our morning meal was terrific.
- Fresh salad
- Smoked salad with cream cheese
- Gouda cheese
- Pickles and olives
- Yogurt with granola
- Fresh fruits with honeydew, cantaloupe, pineapple, grapefruit, oranges, and blackberries
STANDARD BREAKFAST (still pretty healthy)
- Salad, smoked with salmon with olives, cream cheese, blueberries & strawberries
- Omelet, potato quiche, roasted tomato with herb butter
- Nature Valley crunchy granola
CHEF’S DESSERT CHOICE (not quite healthy, but delicious)
- Warm breakfast bakery basket, consisting of croissant and pastries
- Coffee, espresso, cappuccino, assorted teas
Our friendly crew was determined to maximize all of our meal duration, clearing the last of the service items only twenty minutes before landing at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. These warm and fun people were but a prelude to the people I would meet in Israel. I was offered many recommendations for things to do and places to eat.
Upon landing, Israel’s legendary efficiency came into play. Within a half-hour, we had collected our luggage, cleared customs, and were on our way to an incredible adventure in Israel we would never forget. Read more on that in an upcoming Airways Adventures post at AirwaysMag.com
In conclusion, El Al’s perception and overall product aren’t anywhere close to Skytrax 5 Stars. Though that rating standard isn’t renown as a gauge of accuracy. But the reality of today’s El Al is much better than perception. It’s difficult to compare El Al’s 777 premium product to United Polaris or Delta One, who both operate a higher end premium cabin product on routes between Israel and the US. But, if you want to experience Israel the minute your journey begins, El Al is the correct choice. If you go into it with the right mindset and sense of adventure, you will immediately feel at home and make new friends.
I am genuinely excited not only to return to Israel but anxious to review El Al’s quantum leap forward new 787 product.
Editors Note: Airways inaugurates a new feature “Airways Adventures” with a two-part travel series on Israel in coming weeks.