Sunday, July 14, 2013

El Al Review

El Al is Israel's national airline.  It's motto for the past few years in Hebrew has been "הכי בבית בעולם" which translates, approximately to "the most at-home-in the world."  It is a great slogan that evokes a certain feeling of  loyalty, family and nostalgia, which resonates with many Israelis.  Certainly El Al creates the feeling of entering Israel as soon as you reach the check-in counter from wherever in the world you might be flying.

For the Toronto-Tel-Aviv route, El Al and Air Canada are the only two airlines that fly direct, non-stop.  So for those looking for the most direct, easiest way to get to Israel from Toronto, there are only two choices.  With respect to pricing, El Al is competitive and can often be significantly cheaper than Air Canada.  It also seems to me that there are still more "deals" to be had with El Al by negotiating with agents and other non-web ticket sellers.  With Air Canada, agents will often sell the tickets at a higher price than the price available on various web sites.

El Al is a member of the One World alliance which includes American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, Finnair and WestJet to name a few.  El Al's own mileage program is called the Matmid program.  It allows you to collect points for flights and save up for bonus flights, upgrades and other benefits.  I am not going to get into the details of it but, overall, it is geared towards Israelis who are travelling frequently to a variety of destinations.  For a North American or someone travelling back and forth between Israel and North America, the benefits are not at all comparable to something like the Aeroplan program (now renamed Altitude) or the programs of many other airlines.  Some people might prefer to join the British Airways or American Airlines program and collect the points for an El Al flight through one of those other programs.

I have flown El Al quite a number of times over the past 30 years and it is fair to say that it has improved greatly.  One of the improvements is the check-in process.  There is available web check-in, which is highly recommended, especially when-leaving Israel.  This can save quite a bit of time.  The in-flight service has also improved significantly. The flight attendants are now generally polite, friendly and helpful.

However, some aspects of El Al service have remained quite outdated and are in great need of an update.  On the Toronto-Tel-Aviv route, there are no personal entertainment systems.  There are a few main screens for all the passengers.  There are a limited number of personal entertainment devices that can be rented but these are in short supply.  Whether using one of these devices or relying on the main screen the entertainment selection is fairly limited.  For the audio selection, there are about 10 different channels, of which two are reserved for the main screen.  You can catch up on some of the latest Israeli pop music on one of the stations, some Israeli "mizrahi" music (Mediterranean influenced music) on another channel or you can listen to a religious channel.  This is a unique aspect of flying El Al since none of the other airlines offer Hebrew entertainment on their routes to Israel. 

The El Al audio can be interesting for an hour or two, but overall, the best advice when flying El Al is to bring your own entertainment - books, audio devices, tablets or whatever else you might need.  This is a long flight - almost 11 hours on the way to Israel and sometimes, close to 13 hours on the way back to Toronto.   The lack of a reasonable entertainment system contrasts greatly with airlines like Air Canada, United, Lufthansa and others that can feature hundreds of movies and audio selections.

The food on El Al is all Kosher, so it is nice not to have to order a special meal on a flight.  But even though it may be Kosher, that does not mean it is tasty...On a recent flight from Tel-Aviv to Toronto the first meal was a choice of three options - beef, chicken or fried fish.  I went with the chicken and it was extremely dry and for the most part inedible.  The second meal on the flight (a flight of more than 12 hours) was a choice of an omelet or a salad...I took the omelet and it was quite brutal.  I guess I`ll try different options the next time and maybe I`ll have better luck.

Passengers on El-Al feel free to wander around the plane and chat with their fellow passengers.  There are often many groups travelling and there are many Israelis on the flights so there is a certain homey feeling to an El Al flight.  It also might be the only plane with a regular minyan (Jewish prayer quorum) at the back of the plane.  Many of the rules that some of the other airlines might try to follow - including orderly embarkment and disembarkment from the plane are dispensed with on El Al to help create that Israeli cultural milieu - or simply as a result of it.  

On the plus side, El Al has a second-to-none track record in areas of safety and security.  Flying El Al is, in some respects, reassuring, knowing that every possible step is being taken to ensure the safety of the passengers.  This is apparently very costly for the airline and helps explain why El Al has had to cut corners on other aspects of its operations.

For those who are flying regularly between Tel-Aviv and Toronto, it would be hard to justify flying El Al over Air Canada in light of the many benefits of the Aeroplan Altitude program, if the price is remotely similar.  But for people flying less frequently and looking for a direct flight at a reasonable price, El Al can often be significantly cheaper than Air Canada and that alone may make an El Al flight worthwhile.

I hope that in the coming years El Al will look at some of these issues and try to address them.  Maybe it could offer worldwide wi-fi access at a reasonable price.  If passengers pay to use it, it may not be such a huge cost for the airline.  This is something that some other airlines have been discussing though I am not sure that it is currently being offered by anyone other than Lufthansa.  This would help offset the deficiencies of El Al's current entertainment system.  Or perhaps it could revamp its Matmid program entirely and make it more like the programs offered by some of the world`s better airlines.  Ideally, of course, it would completely revamp its in-flight entertainment system and give each passenger a personal screen and an electricity outlet.  However, it is probably too much to expect wholesale changes to the interior of the planes, due to the costs involved.  But El Al should be able to find some ways to move its passenger experience from the 1980s to the present day, especially since the flights are so long.

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