Thirty years ago when I first landed in Israel, straight off an El Al flight from New York, there was no more vilified or ridiculed airline than Israel’s. Some of the criticism was certainly justified. Stewardesses were known to be prickly sabras who ignored you if you were lucky, and told you off if you were not. They didn’t like foreigners, and they certainly didn’t see any reason to smile when forced to serve food and beverages to spoiled Americans (who had never served in the IDF, had more money than they deserved, and arrived in Israel with the nerve to expect a vacation!).
People were constantly cursing El Al for unannounced schedule changes, unbearable security checks, sardine-seating, overbooking … If you told anyone you were flying El Al, the usual reaction was an eye-roll and condolences.
Well, times have changed. Not only has Israel’s national airline corrected most of its growing pains, but it’s become, in my opinion, one of the best airlines in the world.
I know. I’ve traveled with almost every one of them to almost everywhere. I guess I should admit that one of the greatest charms of traveling El Al for an observant Jew is getting fresh, delicious kosher food. Although you can theoretically order kosher meals on all airlines, I will never forget being served an impenetrable cardboard box which contained cold food about six months old. When I finally managed to open it, the wrapping and the contents were equal in both taste and texture. All this while viewing my fellow passengers savor fresh fish and pasta on china plates.
If you haven’t flown El Al recently, the food has become really something to look forward to. And I liked being given a menu, even though I was flying tourist class.
Gone too are the surly flight attendants. In the last ten flights I’ve made with El Al, the attendants have been uniformly helpful, gracious, and friendly. I also have to admit when I’m returning from a stay abroad, I enjoy hearing Hebrew the minute I step inside an El Al plane, and getting an Israeli newspaper to catch up on what I’ve missed. Let’s face it, those stuffy British papers and the Wall Street Journal just can’t compete with Israeli papers when it comes to providing you with really important news (the water level in the Kinneret, the cost of living index, the latest government scandal).
As for nasty flight attendants, I remember the stewardess on a Delta flight who told me off in no uncertain terms for politely asking her to hang up my coat.
And when the loudspeaker goes on in an El Al flight and I hear the voice of the captain speaking terrible English with that heavy Sabra inflection, I just feel, well, so safe. I know that in the cockpit is a veteran of the Israeli Air Force who has flown skillfully through dangerous missions over hostile territory during numerous wars, managing to bring himself and his soldiers home safely. I just close my eyes and relax. After all, for such a person, what’s a little turbulence in a simple run between Tel Aviv and New York?
Another distinct advantage of flying with a Jewish airline is the fact that your check-in people are used to dealing with Jews. My daughter, returning from France with Air France, was devastated when they told her that she’d exceeded her baggage allowance. Worse, they said that the plane had no more room even if she agreed to pay overweight. This has never happened to me on El Al.
I am always amazed at the cool of El Al’s check-in people when faced with monster Pullmans, bags, boxes, and other “peckilach” that are so dear to the heart of people flying to and from the Jewish State. Their kindly indulgence is so …so…”hamish”.
I suppose delays and breakdowns are just a matter of luck, and I’ve been lucky when I travel El Al. My worst experiences with delays were with TWA, who had me sitting for eight hours waiting to “borrow a part,” to get one of their planes moving in a flight between Tel Aviv and Newark, New Jersey.
And then, there’s security.
Yes, it certainly is a pain. But when I see all those suspicious characters lined up sweating buckets to explain to some tough El Al security person who they are and where they’re going, I just know there is somebody out there protecting me and mine from airborne piracy and mayhem. Let them go through my suitcases, ask me if and when and how I’ve packed. It’s worth it. Especially when you’ve got children and grandchildren with you.
I also like the well-done magazine, the interesting entertainment, the free headsets….El Al, hats off. Can’t wait for my next flight.