Ever since the thwarted airline attack on Christmas Day practically everyone on the news is asking why U.S. airlines can't have solid security like Israel and its national airline, EL AL. I'm one of them especially after experiencing its service firsthand a few months ago.
About EL AL
Everyone is talking about EL AL, but not that many people know what it is like to fly. The airline has been around for more than 60 years and from North America it has nonstop flights to Tel Aviv, Israel from New York (JFK and Newark), Los Angeles, and Toronto. Worldwide it flies to more than 40 destinations and carries more than 1.9 million passengers every year.
From North America EL AL uses three different types of aircraft; 767-200, 777-200 and 747-400. I flew them to and from Toronto, which was unfortunate because on that route they only use the dated 767 plane. From Los Angeles they use new 777 and from New York they have a mix of 777 and 747.
Over the years I'd heard about all kinds of EL AL security precautions that they take; some turned out to be true, some false. No matter which North America airport you check-in you will see armed gunmen in the far corners. It was no different at Pearson International Airport Terminal 3.
"Look Into My Eyes"
All passengers get vetted before they even get to the airport (they run passengers names in databases and follow up -- unlike the U.S. State Department). Every passenger gets questioned before they even reach the check-in desk by unarmed security agents. The thirtyish, clean cut, skinny Israeli who greeted me was super friendly but looked at me so deep into my eyes that I felt powerless. In fact, if for some reason he wanted to lay me out on the floor he probably could've with one swift kick to my jaw. But instead he just asked basic questions like: "Who packed your bags?" "Where did you pack them?" "Have they been in your possession the whole time?" "Did anyone give you anything to bring to Israel ... ?"
Out of all the interviews I read recently, security experts agree that our biggest mistake when trying to spot terrorists is not looking into their eyes. I guess after some intense training these guys can detect the good from the bad by just observing. After this encounter I believe it.
After a few minutes I cleared and the next stop was the check-in counter to get my boarding pass. Again, the agent and her counterpart were genuinely friendly and very accommodating. When I asked which was the best possible seat they actually took the time to study the seat map. They told me the flight was surprisingly fairly open and warned me which rows the babies were seated so I could stay far away -- and I didn't even ask for that info.
Next stop was Canadian security. It's the same as in the U.S. except they don't make everyone take off their shoes unless you are traveling to America. My sneakers stayed on and that was it security-wise. FYI: One myth I busted was that there were no uniformed guards on the plane. There were two or three plain-clothes air marshals, which is common practice for EL AL.
Toronto to Tel Aviv in Coach
Sure enough the plane wasn't full and I was able to score a whole middle row. Economy seating on the 767 is configured 2-3-2. From Toronto to Tel Aviv it's 5,770 miles and flight time takes 10 hours and 44 minutes. We pushed back five minutes ahead of schedule and took off 15 minutes later. The seatbelt sign went off eight minutes later and the flight attendants began their drink service a few minutes after that. The flight crew spoke in Hebrew first, then English. I had their lemon mint drink and some Hebrew crackers for an aperitif and they were both darn good.
EL AL Flight Attendants
The crew were mostly young, attractive, friendly women who are supposedly hired on five-year contracts, which typically don't get renewed. I learned this when I sat in one of the jump seats in the back galley and chatted the flight attendants up while we were flying over Europe.
I had no idea what kind of food EL AL would be serving so I pre-ordered one of the many options on their website (for free). It turned out that like every other airline, they were offering beef or chicken. I had chicken with rice and string beans. What's interesting is that all meals come with a Kosher certificate. And like most airlines, those who pre-order special meals get theirs first; mine came out 10 minutes earlier than the rest -- less than an hour after takeoff.
Unlike EL AL's 777 and 747 (so I've been told) there were no power ports in economy or individual screens. However, they did come around with entertainment systems to rent for $15 or you could watch the entertainment (news, TV shows and movies) being played on the overhead monitors just like the old days. FYI: they showed four movies.
On all the seats were thick blankets that were wrapped in plastic and smelled of detergent, which is a great sign that they're clean. They also passed out little amenity kits with ear plugs, an eye mask, toothbrush/paste, lip balm and socks.
The flight crew really worked their tails off and they came down the aisles with bottled water every hour and they also cleaned the bathrooms regularly. In the back galley throughout the flight, they had snacks and sandwiches (tuna fish or veggie) set up.
Two hours before landing, the crew came around with hot towels and served breakfast. I had eggs, a bagel, cheese and fruit.
Overall, I was really impressed with EL AL's service and it was a dream flight. Why? There happened to be a number of empty seats, allowing more space and the flight crew were really gracious. I said to a fellow passenger if EL AL's slogan "It's not just an airline -- It's Israel" is anything like Israel, I'm really going to like this place. I did but that's a whole other story.
EL AL, tel. +972 (3) 9771111; www.elal.co.il/ELAL/English/States/General/
Note: This cost of this flight was sponsored by Israel Tourism. Frommer's does not promise coverage of any kind in exchange for assistance from travel providers.
John E. DiScala (a.k.a. Johnny Jet) travels around 150,000 miles and visits over 20 countries each year. He and his website JohnnyJet.com have been featured in USA Today, Time, Fortune and The New York Times, and he has appeared on ABC, CBS, CNBC, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, FOX News Channel and PBS. JohnnyJet.com has been named "one of the top best money-saving web sites for travel" by Budget Travel Magazine, while the L.A. Times calls it "one of the top 10 essential travel resources on the internet." Sign up today for Johnny Jet's free weekly travel newsletter at JohnnyJet.com.