When 50 Israelis who survived the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami were stranded in Sri Lanka, El Al made good on its commitment to organize and operate rescue missions.
"When there is a problem, Israelis will go out of their way to help other Israelis," said Nira Dror, the Israeli airline's vice president and general manager of North and Central American operations.
El Al's humanitarian efforts are renowned -- from 1950's Operation Magic Carpet in Yemen to 1991's Operation Solomon in Ethiopia. Since its founding in 1948, El Al has rescued more than 1 million Jews from dangerous and desperate situations.
But what made the Sri Lanka rescue unique was that it's El Al's first as a private carrier.
Following an initial public offering on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in June 2003, Israel's government turned control of the airline over to Knafaim Arkia Holdings on Dec. 23, 2004. El Al had kicked off an effort to shed its image as a state-sponsored carrier and define its future business plans, which locally includes the addition of a Saturday flight and lower fares, when it was called on once again to save Jews abroad. With media attention focused so heavily on the disaster, news of El Al's sea change was buried.
After the Dec. 28 rescue, El Al sent a second flight to Sri Lanka and a third to Muslim-dominated Indonesia, carrying more than 90 tons of emergency equipment -- including clothing, food and medical supplies. Although Indonesia refused Israel's help, Dror said that the six-figure operation was worth the expense, adding that it would go a long way toward improving relations in the area.
"When there is trouble, we are there," she said.
In defining El Al's new role, newly appointed CEO Israel Borovich said he would like to see the airline extend its reach, becoming a global carrier that caters to international passengers while continuing to serve its specialty niche markets. (Borovich is also president and CEO of Knafaim Arkia Holdings and domestic flier Arkia Israeli Airlines, as well as professor emeritus of computers and information systems at Tel Aviv University.)
On the heels of El Al's operation in Southeast Asia, Borovich talked about the possibility of establishing routes in Asia, a destination popular with Israeli tourists, during a Feb. 4 news conference in New York.
"It's easy to see why Israel was always a gateway into Asia," Borovich told the New York Sun, alluding to the nation's role in the silk and spice trade in ancient times. "And we believe we can again make Israel a gate into Asia and the Far East."
In addition to expanding its service area, the privatized El Al is also taking steps to improve its established routes. Recent efforts include lowering ticket prices, adding flights and making cabin improvements.
"While most airlines are reducing services, El Al is in a position now more than ever to improve and grow," he said.
With a 40 percent growth in tourism to Israel during 2004, El Al is ambitiously trying to compete with carriers like Continental, American, Delta, United, Air Canada, British Airways and Lufthansa for a greater market share.
"We've heard that El Al is not the cheapest from Los Angeles, but we're aiming to become the best value for the money," Dror said.
The airline's strongest selling point is that it's the only carrier offering direct flights to Israel from Los Angeles -- there is a stop in Toronto, although no change of plane is required. But El Al's greatest perceived handicap in the 24-hour world of international travel is that it doesn't fly on Shabbat or major Jewish holidays, a practice some privatization supporters hoped would fall by the wayside.
Borovich, the grandson of a rabbi, said that the issue of flying on Shabbat and Jewish holidays was a sensitive one, and that there were currently no plans to change El Al's policy.
Instead, El Al hopes to entice passengers with fare reductions and additional flight options in the months ahead.
Locally, El Al will expand its weekly direct service from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv to include a sixth flight on Saturday nights beginning this spring. And nonstop weekly flights from JFK in New York are expected to grow from 13 to 21 by July.
El Al's effort to improve comfort on flights with better seats is currently confined to business class, which is also the target of its recent fare promotion.
Business-class travelers departing from LAX are being offered a roundtrip fare of $2,999, and passengers 60 years or older can also take advantage of a special business-class fare of $2,549 per person, with spouses 55 and older able to participate when traveling together. Also, any two first-class passengers traveling together can each purchase a ticket for $4,898. The promotions end March 31.
A winter coach fare of $799 from Los Angeles ended on Feb. 17 with no spring fares yet announced, and El Al is taking advantage of its stop in the Great White North and offering a bargain coach fare of $288 to Toronto.
As El Al finds its footing as a private carrier in an industry that has cut staples such as meals and pillows, the successful transfer raises hope for the privatization of other Israeli government-run corporations, like phone monopoly Bezeq, Israel Discount Bank and Bank Leumi.
"The final goal is for no companies to remain in government hands," Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit said.
For more information, visit www.elal.com or call (800) 223-6700.
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