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Israel Society & Culture: El Al Israel National Airlines

A mere vision in 1948, El Al Israel Airlines today is one of the world’s most advanced and efficient airlines and the ultimate success story of international civil aviation. The birth and growth of El Al can be directly tied to the dramatic and historical events responsible for shaping the State of Israel.

The establishment of Israel as an independent state on May 14, 1948, paved the way for El Al to become Israel’s national airline. In September of that year, the Israeli Government wanted to bring home its newly designated President Chaim Weizmann and his wife Vera from Switzerland in a stately manner. So, government officials chose a four-engine C-54 plane from the Israeli Air Force and named the aircraft “El Al” inspired by the biblical phrase from the book of the Hebrew prophet Hosea, meaning “to the above” or more poetically “to the skies.”

Hurriedly, the plane was painted with the name “El Al” and “Israeli National Aviation Company” in both English and Hebrew with, most beautifully, the Israeli flag on the tail. The makeshift aircraft was decorated with furniture borrowed from the Israeli Air Force and the volunteer in-flight crew was from the Air Force as well. Meals were provided by a local kosher restaurant. Extra fuel tanks were fitted so that the aircraft could travel the 10-hour nonstop flight from Geneva to Israel. On September 28, 1948, the aircraft landed with President Weizmann, his wife Vera and an entourage at Israel’s Ekron Air Base near Rehovot (southeast of Tel Aviv) to a military band playing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem.

By November of 1948, the new Israeli national airline became incorporated under the name El Al Israel Airlines Ltd., with the Israeli government holding 80% and the remaining 20% held by Jewish organizations in Israel. The mission of El Al was, and continues to be, to “secure and maintain a regular civil air link between Israel and the outside world in times of peace and war.”

Operation Magic Carpet

With Operation Magic Carpet in January 1949, dozens of El Al pilots and cabin crew participated in the airlift of almost 47,000 Yemenite Jews and 3,000 Habbanim Jews from the Arabian Peninsula to Israel. The aircraft had to be repainted, enabling El Al to fly safely over Arab air space. To accommodate as many passengers as possible, El Al replaced the aircraft’s seats with wooden benches. At the peak of the operation, planes flew around the clock to Israel, seven to eight flights a day on routes of 1,600 miles that each took about nine hours, which today would take about two and half hours. As they arrived in Israel, many of the Yemenites kneeled and kissed the tarmac as their dream to be brought to the Promised Land on “Eagles Wings” was realized.

Following the great success of the Yemenite airlift, an even more massive rescue mission of Jews from Iraq took place, called Operation Ali Baba. In March of 1950, following Iraqi persecution of the local Jewish communities, the Iraqi government finally allowed Jewish emigration. Operation Ali Baba started in May of that year and continued through December of 1951. El Al became the first visible symbol of a new life of freedom for 113,000 Iraqi immigrants.

While these rescue missions were taking place, commercially El Al operated its first trans-Atlantic charter flight from Tel Aviv to New York on June 18, 1950. That flight required four stops: Rome, Paris, Shannon and Gander, Newfoundland before arriving at Idlewild Airport (today JFK) in New York. With the arrival of the Lockheed Constellation aircraft named Mazel Tov (“good luck”), the airline finally inaugurated regular scheduled service between Tel Aviv and New York in April of 1951.

1956 War

Upon the outbreak of the Sinai War on October 29, 1956, every foreign airline immediately cancelled all flights to and from Israel. Only El Al flew passengers in and out of the country. As many of the airline’s pilots were called to active duty by the Air Force, El Al enlisted additional pilots to maintain passenger service and transport supplies from Paris to Israel, proving that only El Al can be relied upon at any time to continue air service.

As a result of El Al’s actions during the war, the Israeli government recognized the added value of having a national airline and made a promise to build El Al into a major international carrier by purchasing three new Britannias (four-engine turboprops). El Al became the first airline outside of Britain to use this innovative aircraft. By December of 1957, an El Al Britannia flew the longest flight by any commercial airline on the New York/Tel Aviv route with a flying time of 14 hours and 46 minutes, at an average speed of 645 kilometers per hour. In January of 1958, an El Al Britannia broke its own speed record with a flight time of 7 hours and 44 minutes on the nonstop New York/London route.

Just after the Britannia began flying for El Al, the quickly approaching age of the pure-jet aircraft led the airline to order new Boeing 707’s. On its maiden flight from New York to Tel Aviv in 1961, three world records were established: the fastest flight, the first nonstop service on that route and the world’s longest nonstop commercial flight. That year saw the retirement of the last Constellation aircraft, marking the end of the piston-engine era for El Al.

Once again, El Al was faced with an enormous challenge, due to the outbreak of the Six Day War on June 5, 1967, between Israel and Egypt/Syria/Jordan, because so many of the airline’s employees were mobilized. Meanwhile, Israelis overseas and foreign volunteers mobbed El Al offices worldwide desiring to return to Israel to help in the anticipated war. As in 1948 and 1956, every airline except El Al immediately stopped flying into and out of Israel but El Al continued passenger and cargo service.

By 1970, the number of El Al employees worldwide grew to nearly 4,000. In March of 1971, El Al launched its first scheduled service to Canada.  During the same year, El Al also purchased two new state-of-the-art Boeing 747-200 jumbo jets for the nonstop New York/Tel Aviv route. The capacity was double the size of any previous El Al aircraft. The 747-200 was the largest investment Israel had ever made for a single piece of equipment, costing $31-35 million each. That year, passenger traffic on El Al soared by 40% as compared to the previous year. At this time, El Al began the first scheduled nonstop service westbound from Tel Aviv to New York.

Yom Kippur War

On October 6, 1973, the combined forces of Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in the early afternoon on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Again, all foreign carriers stopped flying to and from Israel and Lod Airport was closed to all civilian traffic. El Al rapidly began ferrying Israeli nationals home while airlifting emergency supplies, medicines and vital materials. On the second day of the war, the interiors on all El Al 707 aircraft were gutted and an emergency cargo “skytrain” operation began. El Al pilots logged 180 hours of flying time in two weeks, an average of more than 12 hours per day. With only a quarter of the normal staff on duty to keep the aircraft flying, El Al managed to maintain its regular flight schedule, again being the only carrier flying between Israel and the outside world.

By the early 1980’s, El Al introduced the King Solomon business class, logged the highest on-time performance record of any international airline and was ranked one of the top business class services in the industry. Within a decade, El Al served 34 destinations worldwide with scheduled service to five more North American destinations, having added Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Miami and Toronto.

Operation Exodus

On January 1, 1990, Operation Exodus began and El Al played a major role by airlifting hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews to Israel. In May of 1991, El Al assisted in rescuing close to 15,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa. More than 300 El Al ground workers, pilots and flight attendants worked around the clock over Memorial Day weekend to assist in the life saving mission. Dubbed Operation Solomon, one specially configured El Al Boeing 747 aircraft carried 1,087 people (almost 2.5 times the normal number of passengers), setting an international aviation record. El Al used 10 Boeing aircraft to successfully complete Operation Solomon. Three babies were born onboard with the assistance of doctors and flight attendants. After the Ethiopians heard the arrival announcement in the Amharic language that the aircraft was above Jerusalem, they began to sing “Jerusalem of Gold.” El Al kept its promise to the Government of Israel that the airline will organize and operate a flight to carry immigrants from hostile countries to Israel within 12 hours’ notice.

More recent humanitarian missions, in cooperation with the government of Israel, involved El Al carrying 90 tons of relief assistance to aid victims in Indonesia and rescuing Israelis who were on vacation in Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami catastrophe. This took place even though there are no diplomatic relations between Israel and the two countries. Another mission occurred in September of 2005, when an El Al 747 jumbo jet brought 90 tons of emergency supplies to a military base in Little Rock, Arkansas for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

El Al Goes Private

In 2004, El Al became a private airline. Even though the government of Israel’s holding decreased to less than 50%, El Al continues to maintain its role as Israel’s national airline and displays the Star of David on the tail of every aircraft. A five-year plan to provide the highest uncompromised level of service to benefit customers, employees and shareholders was established. Part of the plan includes developing   El Al into a global carrier, implementing more sophisticated information systems, upgrading the in-flight product on existing aircraft, expanding the fleet and intensifying the full potential of El Al human resources.  

El Al has successfully accomplished these goals and is today an innovative leader in aviation. With a state-of-the-art fleet, enhanced in-flight services for every passenger and an expanded route network to more than 40 destinations worldwide. El Al is the leading airline to Israel. El Al operates the most nonstop flights from North America, including the only nonstop service from Los Angeles.

El Al is the only airline flying to Israel that has three classes of service. Premium classes are equipped with advanced new sleeper seats and passengers relax in modern new luxurious lounges prior to departure. A code share agreement with American Airlines and partnerships with other leading domestic carriers offer El Al passengers convenient flight options from dozens of additional cities in North America.

With annual revenues of about $1.93 billion and carrying approximately 1.8 million passengers annually, El Al continues to invest in its future while preserving its traditions. El Al remains the world’s only Shomer Shabbat carrier (not flying from sundown on Friday until sunset on Saturday).

Embodying Israel’s values of innovation and care, passengers are met with warm Israeli hospitality, Israeli flight attendants who make you feel at home and the best trained Israeli pilots. Originally created to assist those in need, El Al continues serving as a lifeline to the world, reuniting thousands of families and providing immigrants with a chance for a new life in Israel. Today we proudly celebrate 60 years of nonstop service as Israel’s national carrier.

El Al Airlines annually runs special non-stop flights from New York‘s JFK airport to Poland, in order for High School students to participate in the March of the Living.

Following the signing of the Abraham Accords normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates, a U.S.-Israeli delegation flew on El Al to Abu Dhabi on September 1, 2020, the first-ever direct flight from Ben Gurion Airport to an Arab Gulf country. This was also the first Israeli plane allowed to fly through Saudi airspace.

Like airlines around the world, the coronavirus pandemic grounded flights, dramatically reduced passenger loads, and brought the airline to the brink of finacial collapse. In July 2020, El Al  agreed to a government bailout deal that could lead to its nationalization. Under the deal, the airline would receive $250 million in loans, most guaranteed by the government. El Al was also expected to raise an additional $150 million by selling shares of the company; in the case they are not sold, they will be bought by the state. Meanwhile, an American businessman was in talks to purchase the airline.

Important Dates in El Al’s History

  • November 15, 1948: El Al incorporated as El Al Israel Airlines, Ltd.
  • January 1949: Operation Magic Carpet, El Al airlifts approximately 47,000 Yemenite and 3,000 Habbanim Jews to Israel.
  • May 1950 – December 1951: Operation Ali Baba, El Al airlifts 113,000 Iraqi immigrants to Israel.
  • June 18, 1950: First trans-Atlantic charter flight from Tel Aviv to New York.
  • December 18-19, 1957: El Al Britannia plane accomplishes longest flight by any commercial airline, from New York to Tel Aviv in 14 hours 46 minutes.
  • January 8, 1958: El Al Britannia plane breaks world record for speed with a flight time of 7 hours 44 minutes on nonstop New York-London route.
  • June 15, 1961: El Al flight establishes 3 world records on New York-Tel Aviv route: fastest flight, first nonstop service and longest nonstop commercial flight.
  • April 29, 1973: Begins the only scheduled nonstop service from Tel Aviv to New York.
  • May 1988: El Al sets record for longest nonstop flight on the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv route, approximately 13 hours 41 minutes.
  • January 1, 1990: Beginning of Operation Exodus, El Al airlifts hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews to Israel.
  • May 24, 1991: Operation Solomon, El Al secretly airlifts 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. One flight carries 1,087 passengers – a world record.
  • June 2004: El Al stock opened to the public; Government of Israel’s holdings in airline decline to less than 50%.
  • January 6, 2005: Privatization of airline completed.
  • January 22, 2016: First all-female flight completed.
  • September 1, 2020: First direct flight from Israel to a Gulf country (UAE) and first time an Israeli plane is allowed to fly through Saudi airspace.

Sources: Special thanks to Marvin Goldman, El Al historian and author of “El Al: Star in the Sky” and “El Al: Israel’s Flying Star”;
Blumenthal, Itay. “El Al celebrates first-ever all-female cockpit,” YNet News (January 22, 2016);
“Report: US investor in talks to buy Israel's struggling El Al carrier,” i24NEWS, (July 12, 2020);
“El Al plane, ending landmark UAE trip, again flies over Saudi, lands in Tel Aviv,” Times of Israel, (September 1, 2020).