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El Al Israel Airlines Ltd (TASE: ELAL), trading as El Al (Hebrew: אל על, "To The Skies" or "Skywards", Arabic: إل عال), is the flag carrier of Israel. Since its inaugural flight from Geneva to Tel Aviv in September 1948, the airline has grown to serve some 45 destinations, operating scheduled domestic and international services and cargo flights to Europe, North America, Africa and the Near and Far East from its main base in Ben Gurion International Airport. The predecessor airline, Palestine Airways, had ceased to operate when its aircraft were impressed by the Royal Air Force for service in World War II.
El Al in principle offers only kosher in-flight meals and does not fly passengers on the Jewish Sabbath or religious holidays. It is considered one of the world's most secure airlines, thanks to its stringent security procedures, both on the ground and on board its aircraft. Although it has been the target of many attempted hijackings and terror attacks, only one El Al flight has ever been hijacked. As Israel's national airline, El Al has played an important role in humanitarian rescue efforts, airlifting Jews from other countries to Israel, setting the world record for the most passengers on a commercial aircraft (single plane record of 1,122 passengers) by Operation Solomon when 14,500 Jewish refugees were transported from Ethiopia in 1991.
In 2012, El Al operated an all-Boeing fleet of 38 aircraft, flying over 4 million passengers, and employed a staff of 6,056 globally. The company's revenues for 2011 grew to $2.4 billion, totalling losses of $49.4 million compared to a profit of $57 million in 2010.
In September 1948, Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, attended a conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Weizmann was scheduled to fly back to Israel in an Israeli government aircraft, but due to an embargo imposed on Israel at the time, this was not possible. An Israeli C-54 military transport aircraft was instead converted into a civilian plane to transport Weizmann home. The aircraft was painted with the logo of the "El Al/Israel National Aviation Company" and fitted with extra fuel tanks to enable a non-stop flight from Geneva to Israel. It departed from Ekron Air Base on 28 September, and returned to Israel the next day. After the flight, the aircraft was repainted and returned to military use.
The airline was incorporated and became Israel's national flag carrier on 15 November 1948, although it used leased aircraft until February 1949, when two unpressurized DC-4s were purchased from American Airlines. The acquisition was funded by the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency, and other Jewish organizations. The first plane arrived at Lod Airport (later renamed Ben Gurion) on 3 April 1949. Aryeh Pincus, a lawyer from South Africa, was elected head of the company. The first international flight, from Tel Aviv to Paris, with a refueling in Rome, took place on 31 July 1949. By the end of 1949, the airline had flown passengers to London and Johannesburg. A regular service to London was inaugurated in the middle of 1950. Later that year, El Al acquired Universal Airways, which was owned by South African Zionists. A state-run domestic airline, Israel Inland Airlines, was founded in which El Al had a 50% stake.
El Al's cargo service was inaugurated in 1950 and initially relied on military surplus Curtiss C-46 Commando aircraft. Same aircraft type was used also for passengers transportation in certain routes. The same year the airline initiated charter services to the United States, followed by scheduled flights soon afterwards. From its earliest days the operation of the airline in keeping with Jewish tradition has been a source of friction; when the Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion was forming his first coalition, the religious parties would not join unless Ben-Gurion promised that El Al would serve only kosher food on its flights and would not fly on the Jewish Sabbath.
Bristol Britannia of El Al at Farnborough Airport in 1957 just before delivery to the airline
The airline was involved in several covert operations: In the early 1950s, El Al airlifted over 160,000 immigrants to Israel from India, Iran, Iraq and Yemen as part of Operation Magic Carpet and Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. In 1960, Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was captured and flown from Argentina to Israel on an El Al aircraft.
In 1955, after using Lockheed Constellations for several years, the airline purchased two Bristol Britannia aircraft. El Al was the second airline in the world to fly this plane, after the British Overseas Airways Corporation. In 1958, El Al ran a newspaper advertisement in the US featuring a picture of a "shrunken" Atlantic Ocean ("Starting Dec. 23, the Atlantic Ocean will be 20% smaller") to promote its non-stop transatlantic flights. This was a bold step: the airline industry had never used images of the ocean in its advertising because of the widespread public fear of airline crashes. The advertisement, which ran only once, proved effective. Within a year, El Al's sales tripled.
Expansion in the 1960s
An El Al Boeing 707 at Orly Airport, Paris (1965)
Despite the purchase of its Britannias and inauguration of non-stop transatlantic flights the airline remained unprofitable. When Efraim Ben-Arzi took over the company in the late 1950s, the Britannias were replaced by the Boeing 707 jet airliner. The first year that El Al turned a profit was 1960. That year, more than 50 percent of the passengers flying into Israel arrived on El Al flights. On 15 June 1961, the airline set a world record for the longest non-stop commercial flight: an El Al Boeing 707 flew from New York to Tel Aviv, covering 5,760 miles (9,270 km) in 9 hours and 33 minutes. By this time, El Al was carrying 56,000 passengers a year—on a par with Qantas and ahead of established airlines like Loftleiðir. In 1961, El Al ranked 35th in the world in accumulated passenger distance. El Al's success continued into the late 1960s. In 1968, regular flights to Bucharest were inaugurated, and cargo flights began to Europe and the United States. The airline also established a catering subsidiary, Teshet Tourism and Aviation Services Ltd. All these ventures brought in a profit of $2 million that year.
See also: El Al Flight 426 hijacking
In 1968, El Al experienced the first of many acts of terrorism that have been perpetrated against the airline. On 23 July, the only successful hijacking of an El Al aircraft took place, when a Boeing 707 carrying 10 crew and 38 passengers was taken over by three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The aircraft, El Al Flight 426, which was en route from Rome to Tel Aviv, was diverted to Algiers by the hijackers. Negotiations with the hijackers lasted for 40 days. Both the hijackers and the passengers, including 21 Israeli hostages, were eventually freed. The hijackers were said to have believed Israeli General Ariel Sharon was on the flight. According to Sarah Levy, it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson who saved Sharon's life, by advising him the night before to take a different flight. On 26 December of the same year, two PFLP members attacked an El Al aircraft at Athens International Airport, killing an Israeli mechanic. The Israeli Defense Forces responded to the incident on 29 December, with a night-time raid on Lebanon's Beirut Airport, destroying 14 planes on the ground belonging to Middle East Airlines, Trans Mediterranean Airways and Lebanese International Airways. The military action was responsible for the demise of the LIA, which had most of its fleet destroyed.
On 18 February 1969, Palestinians attacked an El Al plane at Zurich Airport killing the copilot and injuring the pilot. One Palestinian attacker was killed and others were convicted but later released. Between September and December of that year, bomb and grenade attacks occurred at El Al offices in Athens, West Berlin, and Brussels. This wave of violence culminated in the failed hijacking of an El Al 707 by Patrick Arguello and Leila Khaled on 6 September 1970, as part of the Dawson's Field hijackings.
An El Al Boeing 747-400 at Rhodes International Airport, Greece (2009)
El Al acquired its first Boeing 747 in 1971. Many felt it was a risky purchase given the high cost of the plane and fear of attacks, but El Al operations flourished after the purchase. Another 747 was delivered in 1973 and was used to start non-stop service from Tel Aviv to New York (707s had flown the eastward nonstop since around 1961).
In the mid-1970s El Al began to schedule flights from airports outside of Israel that departed on the Jewish sabbath and landed in Israel after it had finished. The religious parties in the government claimed that this was a violation of Jewish law and contrary to the agreement signed in the early days of the state, in which El Al promised to refrain from flying on the sabbath. In 1982 the newly re-elected prime minister Menachem Begin, brought before the Knesset a vote to ban Sabbath flights once again (it passed by a vote of 58 to 54). Outraged, the secular community threatened to boycott the airline. In August 1982 El Al workers blocked Orthodox and Hassidic Jews from entering the airport.
In 1977 El Al established a charter subsidiary, El Al Charter Services Ltd., later renamed Sun D'Or International Airlines Ltd. Two years earlier the airline had suffered its first losses since the late 1950s, largely a product of the global recession. The management changed three times towards the end of the 1970s, until Itzhak Shander was named president. As the political situation in Iran deteriorated, El Al began to airlift Jews to Israel. All the airline's infrastructure in Iran was eventually destroyed. El Al flights to Cairo were inaugurated in April 1980, following the Israel–Egypt Peace Treaty. In late 1982, after a long period of labor disputes and strikes, El Al operations were suspended. The government appointed Amram Blum to run the company, which lost $123.3 million in the fiscal year ending April 1983. The airline also sold its stake in Arkia at this time.
Operations resumed in January 1983 under receivership. The government purchased two new Boeing 737 aircraft and announced plans to acquire four Boeing 767 jets at the cost of $200 million. Within four years, El Al was profitable again. It broke another record, since then surpassed, in May 1988 with a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, a journey of 7,000 nautical miles (13,000 km) in 13 hours and 41 minutes. Flights to Poland and Yugoslavia were inaugurated in 1989.
In January 1990, North American Airlines began providing feeder services to El Al's US destinations. El Al held a 24.9 percent stake in the airline until selling it back to Dan McKinnon in July 2003. By this time, El Al was operating a fleet of 20 aircraft, including nine Boeing 747s, and had begun replacing its aging Boeing 707s with the Boeing 757. Early that year, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, El Al inaugurated regular flights to Moscow. No airlifts from the former Soviet Union were possible at the time but permission was granted in 1991. Charter flights commenced in August 1991, with immigrants also occupying all available seats on El Al's scheduled routes. In cooperation with Aeroflot, El Al flew more than 400,000 Jewish immigrants to Israel within a three-year period.
On 24 May 1991, an El Al Boeing 747 cargo plane airlifted a record-breaking 1,087 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa to Israel in the framework of Operation Solomon. Three babies were born during the flight. The plane carried twice as many passengers as it was designed for. In less than 36 hours, 14,500 Ethiopian Jews were flown to Israel. On 27 April 1994, El Al received its first Boeing 747-400.
El Al flights were inaugurated to the Far East and, in 1995, El Al signed its first codesharing agreement with American Airlines. In February 1995, the receivership under which the airline had technically been operating since 1982 came to an end. In June 1996, El Al recorded its first flight from Israel to Amman, Jordan.
In 1996, El Al recorded US$83.1 million in losses, due to the resumption of terrorist activities and the government's open skies policy. To keep its planes flying during this period, El Al introduced flights "to nowhere": passengers were offered various kinds of in-flight entertainment as the plane circled the Mediterranean. One-day shopping trips to London and visits to religious sites in eastern Europe were also promoted.
In 1997, El Al opened a separate cargo division. El Al's first Boeing 777 embarked on its maiden flight in March 2000. Later that year the controversy over flights on Shabbat erupted again, when the airline announced that it was losing US$55 million a year by grounding its planes on Saturdays. After privatization of the company began in June 2003, the policy regarding sabbath flights was expected to change.
In August 2010, El Al and American Airlines signed an agreement to provide connecting through tickets between Israel and 61 destinations in the United States from October 2010, via John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
The first phase of the long-delayed privatization of the company commenced in June 2003 and by Israel's Government Companies Authority, headed by Eyal Gabbai. 15 percent of El Al's shares were listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. By June 2004, 50% of the company had been sold to the public. By January 2005, a controlling share of the company had been transferred to Knafaim-Arkia Holdings Ltd. As of October 2014, El Al's major shareholders are Knafaim Holdings (36%), Ginspurg Group (10%) and Delek Group (10%).
Company affairs and identity
Small El Al aircraft at Schneider Children's Medical Center in Petakh Tikva
El Al's headquarters are located on the grounds of Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv District, Israel, near Lod.
During 2005, the airline transported 3.5 million passengers, a rise from 3.2 million in 2004 and 2.8 million in 2003. 60% of the airline's passengers are Israeli. In 2006, El Al posted a $44.6 million loss on revenues of $1.665 billion. The company is facing four lawsuits, two of which have been approved as class actions, which could cost the company $176.2 million. El Al spends $100 million a year to conform with the airline security measures required by Israel's Shin Bet security service. In early 2007, El Al opened a new King David Lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. New lounges at Heathrow airport in London and JFK International airport in New York had also opened in late 2007.
In 2007, El Al invested NIS 1 billion in the purchase of two new Boeing 777-200s that included an updated El Al decal. The aircraft are fitted with upgraded seats with adjustable headrests and legrests. Each seat is equipped with a touch-screen entertainment system. The first aircraft, named "Sderot", completed its maiden flight from New York to Tel Aviv on 26 July 2007. The second, "Kiryat Shmona", was delivered at the end of August 2007.
After the United States Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Israel's aviation safety rating to 2 in February 2009, an IATA member has warned El Al, as well as competing airlines Arkia and Israir, that they may appear on the European blacklist of banned carriers. Giora Romm, head of the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel, responded to the claim, stating: "We are in close contact with the Europeans," He added, "I don't know what the fuss is about. The Europeans' e-mail is strange. We are doing everything we can to improve security." The European Union has yet to make an official statement on the matter. El Al uses the Amadeus CRS system for reservation, inventory, check-in and online bookings. In November 2012, the United States FAA restored Israel's category 1 rating.
El Al has a cargo branch, El Al Cargo, which became independent in 1997. As the national cargo airline of Israel, it operates to destinations in Asia, Europe and North America plus ad hoc worldwide charters with its two Boeing 747-200F aircraft. Before 2001, when the Israeli air cargo market opened up to competition, El Al Cargo enjoyed a monopoly. Now its main competition comes from CAL Cargo Air Lines.
As of 2011, the company employs a staff of 6,056 globally and has a fleet of 37 aircraft. The company's revenues for 2011 grew by 4% from 2010 to $2.4 billion, totalling losses of $49.4 million compared to a profit of $57 million in 2010.
El Al has Hebrew language voiceovers and Arabic language subtitles in its flight safety videos.
As a prime target for terrorism, El Al employs stringent security procedures, both on the ground and on board its aircraft. These effective, though sometimes controversial, procedures have won El Al's security reputation. In 2008, the airline was named by Global Traveler magazine as the world's most secure airline.
Airport security measures
Passengers are asked to report three hours before departure. All El Al terminals around the world are closely monitored for security. There are plain-clothes agents and fully armed police or military personnel patrolling the premises for explosives, suspicious behavior, and other threats. Inside the terminal, passengers and their baggage are checked by a trained team. El Al security procedures require that all passengers be interviewed individually prior to boarding, allowing El Al staff to identify possible security threats. Passengers will be asked questions about where they are coming from, the reason for their trip, their job or occupation, and whether they have packed their bags themselves. El Al believes interviewers can spot signs of nervousness.
At the check-in counter, passengers' passports and tickets are closely examined. A ticket without a sticker from the security checkers will not be accepted. At passport control passengers' names are checked against information from the FBI, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Scotland Yard, Shin Bet, and Interpol databases. Luggage is screened and sometimes hand searched. In addition, bags are put through a decompression chamber simulating pressures during flight that could trigger explosives. El Al is the only airline in the world that passes all luggage through such a chamber. Even at overseas airports, El Al security agents conduct all luggage searches personally, even if they are supervised by government or private security firms.
Flight security measures
Undercover agents (sometimes referred to as sky marshals) carrying concealed firearms sit among the passengers on every international El Al flight. Most El Al pilots are former Israeli Air Force pilots. The cockpits in all El Al aircraft have double doors to prevent entry by unauthorized persons. A code is required to access the doors, and the second door will only be opened after the first has closed and the person has been identified by the captain or first officer. Furthermore, there are reinforced steel floors separating the passenger cabin from the baggage hold.
Following an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner in 2002, all aircraft in the fleet have been equipped with an infrared countermeasures system called Flight Guard, developed by Israeli Aerospace Industries to defend them against anti-aircraft missiles. Although comparable systems such as CAMPS are now available for civilian aircraft, there is no information to date about any other airlines deploying such a system. Switzerland and other European countries have expressed concern that flares dropped by the Israeli system could cause fires in the vicinity of an airport.
In April 2013, the Israeli government increased payments to El Al to secure 97.5% of the airlines' security costs, ahead of the Open Skies agreement to take effect in 2014 with the European Union.