This blog is mostly about time spent in the nose of large airplanes with massive suites, flowing drinks and delicious food, and how to get there for pennies. But just because I’m obsessed with hacking travel doesn’t mean I never fly coach.
I recently found myself at the back end of a 777 flying from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv. This was a business trip, and I had no control over the ticket purchased to get me to Israel. If I did, I would have flown British Airways from San Diego, through London Heathrow, on to Tel Aviv to get an early start on re-qualifying for my American Airlines status and to avoid the schlep up to Los Angeles early-morning. Alternatively, another good option for getting to Israel is United’s newest service to Tel Aviv from San Francisco on a 787. (On the return, we left from the gate next to United’s Dreamliner at Ben Gurion Airport; it’s a very pretty plane.)
At the bottom of my list is El Al. While Israel’s national carrier used to have a partnership with American Airlines, that was cancelled at the end of 2014. The only options for banking mileage from El Al flights are to El Al’s own Matmid frequent flyer program, South African Airways or Qantas. None of these options were any good to me, so my miles went uncredited. Alas.
Redemption-wise, El Al also represents terrible value. Matmid would require dozens of flights before earning enough miles for a free ticket, and El Al’s hard product (it’s seats) are terribly outdated. Business Class on its 777 is in a 2-3-2 setup of angled seats (similar to the outgoing American Airlines Business class), and First Class is in a 2-2-2 flatbed arrangement. If you’re looking for a comfortable redemption to get to Israel, you’re best off flying United, Delta, Air Canada, British Air or Lufthansa.
But I digress. Like it or not, I was flying in steerage on this 13 hour flight and going to enjoy every minute of it!
After an early-morning drive up to LAX, I arrived at the Tom Bradley International Terminal for check in. El Al’s counters were easily identifiable, and the wait for security interviews and luggage check were surprisingly short.
There is no pre-Check at TBIT, so give yourself extra time to get through security. The wait in line was about 20 minutes that morning.
With an hour to go before boarding, I decided to put my Priority Pass membership to use and headed over to the Korean Air Lounge for a short, disappointing visit.
Carrying two cans of Diet Coke courtesy of Korean Air, I headed to the gate to wait out our 12:30 PM boarding time, which came quickly enough.
Boarding was uneventful, and I made my way back to seat 51D, way back near the tail of the plane.
El Al has not done much to update its cabins since it first took delivery of its 777s, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. The trend among airlines for the last decade has been to squeeze ten seats across the width of its 777s, giving each economy passenger less than 17″ of personal space. El Al, on the other hand, still has the old standard of nine seats across, at 18+” each. One inch may not sound like much, but when you’re sitting for 15 hours, it can mean a world of difference. So the video systems are seriously out of date (and the planes have no WiFi), but at least the seats are a little wider than normal.
The doors closed shortly before our departure time of 1:30 PM, and then we sat and waited. And waited. The captain came on to let us know that they were still fueling the plane. Why that hadn’t happened earlier, when the plane had arrived six hours prior, I do not know.
Eventually, things were squared away, we had a short taxi and took off from LAX’s southern runway, which meant turning 270 degrees to the south over the Pacific until finally we were headed towards the northwest en route to Israel. Despite the rainy weather in Southern California, take off was surprisingly smooth. We were above the clouds in no time and on our way.
While the flight from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv is blocked at 14.5 hours, you’ll notice that already the flight map said we had 12.5 hours to go. It’s usual for airlines to add a buffer of as much as an hour to the flight time to account for slight delays and taxiing, but this was much more than that. I wondered how we would get to Tel Aviv so quickly.
The answer came once we neared Canadian airspace, where the tailwinds were so strong that we were clocking speeds greater than 650 MPH. That’s fast.
About thirty minutes after takeoff, flight attendants began working the aisles, offering a small snack of Israeli Ritz crackers and drinks to all passengers. I busted out the second Diet Coke I’d taken from the Korean Air lounge to complement the water and red wine I ordered from the cart. El Al stocks many different juices and sodas for economy passengers, but the only alcohol in the cabin is red wine. No beer, no white wine, no liquor.
Service at this point descended to a snail’s pace. For some reason, they had a vegetarian meal for me, so I received my lunch well before the rest of the cabin. It was at least twenty minutes later until my seat mates received their food.
My vegetarian lunch was hardly filling, but impressive for its freshness. It consisted of a small side salad with olive oil and lemon juice for dressing, grilled vegetables over rice, hummus, fruit and a roll. I wasn’t too hungry, so I ate all the vegetables and the hummus and called it a day.
It would be another hour before I could get my tray cleared, which was pretty frustrating. After serving lunch the flight attendants all but disappeared. Finally, at long last, they returned, and I was freed from my seat. I headed straight back toward the lavatory to change into athletic shorts for the rest of the flight.
In the back of the 777, two lavatories flank the sides of the planes parallel to the galley. Because of the extra space, these two lavatories are relatively big for an airplane, providing more than enough room to change clothes. This is no Emirates shower suite, but I’ll take what I can get.
From this point on is where an otherwise satisfactory long haul economy trip turned in to a frustrating experience that will make me rethink flying El Al in the future.
Its my experience that airlines generally try to do everything they can to get passengers to sleep on long flights. Even when it’s the middle of the day outside, the lights are normally turned off as soon as possible and those sitting in window seats are asked to close their shades.
We had left LAX at 1:30, and by now it was about 4 PM Pacific time, meaning 2 in the morning at our destination. Outside, the sun was set. It was time to try to get some sleep, both to pass the ten hours ahead and to begin to acclimate to the new time zone.
But the lights stayed on. And on. And on.
For twelve and a half hours, overnight, the entire length of our flight, the cabin lights were never turned off. Fortunately, I brought an eye mask. I was able to fall asleep twice for an hour each time. But that’s it.
I got irritable, and cranky. There is something incredibly jarring about light during the middle of the night. But they wouldn’t turn them off.
So that’s where I stopped taking pictures. It was bad enough being in a tiny seat at the back of a massive jet for thirteen hours of flying. Doing so without, at least, a darkened cabin left me incredibly frustrated.
Good riddance, El Al. Please let me sleep next time.
Minutes passed. Hours clicked by. Slowly. Slowly. Tick tock tick tock. Tick.
Finally, finally, we neared the end of our journey.
We were served breakfast about two hours before landing, which consisted of a putrid omelette. Maybe it didn’t actually taste that bad, but I was exhausted, and hadn’t slept; I was cranky as hell. So I didn’t take a picture of that.
We landed in Tel Aviv right on time. I’ve never been more antsy to get off a plane. Waiting as all fifty rows in front of me disembarked was painful. But we arrived. Ben Gurion airport was rather empty, things were closing down before the Jewish Sabbath, so Passport Control was quick and easy. I got my bags and headed into the the White City.
El Al has a special place in many people’s hearts when traveling to Israel as it is the national carrier and has an extraordinary safety record.
But if you have any choice in what airline you fly, I would encourage you choose another carrier. You’ll earn miles, the food just may be edible, the lights will be turned off, and you can drink a beer.
There’s not much to look forward to in economy travel, so every little bit counts. El Al got us to Israel on time and safely, but I can think of many more comfortable ways to accomplish the same in the future.