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October 28, 2009

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                    EL AL to Israel

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When I was first invited to visit Israel, I admit I had many preconceived notions, fears and questions – perhaps many of the same ones that first-time visitors to Israel would have. But my first question was: What's it like to fly El Al? If you're interested, here's a play-by-play:

El Al is known for having the tightest security of any airline in the world. I'd heard about all kinds of precautions that they take; some turned out to be true, some false. To be honest, I had mixed emotions when I found out I was going to be flying El Al. Part of me wanted to experience it while the other half of me was filled with trepidation. Well, let's see, shall we?

I'd heard so many conflicting trip reports I didn't know who to believe so I went straight to a reliable source – the airline's PR team. The first thing I learned from them is that I didn't need to show up at the airport four hours in advance as I'd heard; two hours was sufficient. I also learned that El Al doesn't upgrade anyone for free -- except maybe the Pope.

El Al is Israel's national airline and this year they're celebrating 60 years of service. El AL offers the most nonstop flights between New York (JFK/Newark) and Israel as well as the only nonstop service from Los Angeles. Worldwide, they fly to more than 40 destinations. The airline has annual revenues of about $1.93 billion and carries more than 1.8 million passengers annually.

I had a choice to fly from either Los Angeles (15 hours nonstop on a new 777), from New York on a refurbished 747 or from Toronto on a dated 767-200. Of course, of the three, the 767 would be my last choice but I still chose it since Natalie was coming with me and she's based out of Canada.

When Natalie and I rolled up to Terminal 3 at Pearson International Airport, I couldn't help but notice the armed gunmen in the far corners; it's the same at LAX and JFK during check-in for El Al. Gulp. All passengers get vetted before they even get to the airport. We had to submit scans of our passports so the moment we arrived, the security agent knew exactly who we were and why we were going to Israel. He was super friendly and put us at ease while he asked us 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 … ?

Next stop was the counter to check-in where we were greeted by friendly agents – one was Italian, the other Serbian. Both were very accommodating and were eager to help find us the best possible seats on the plane. The good news was the flight was fairly open and the agents knew exactly where the babies were seated … so we chose seats far away from them! FYI: Economy seating on the 767 is configured 2-3-2. We chose the middle row since the agent we were dealing with kindly blocked the middle seat in between us to give us extra room.

Next stop was Canadian security. It's the same as in America except they don't make everyone take off their shoes (just certain types) unless you are traveling to America. My sneakers stayed on and that was it security-wise. FYI: There were no uniformed guards on the plane but I heard there were two or three air marshals, which is normal for them.

Terminal 3 was deserted but Natalie and I scored passes to the KLM business class lounge, which El Al rents for their premium passengers. The lounge was cheerful and quiet since it was almost empty. A friendly Dutch agent showed us the free snacks (soup cups, Tim Horton's pastries and muffins), fruit and drinks, including Heineken beer on tap. They also had free Wi-Fi.

Toronto to Tel Aviv is 5,770 miles and takes 10 hours and 44 minutes. The 1:30pm flight was a little late in boarding but we pushed back ahead of schedule at 1:25pm and took off at 1:42pm. The seatbelt sign went off eight minutes later and the flight attendants broke out the drink cart a few minutes after that. I had a lemon mint drink and some Hebrew crackers for an aperitif and they were both darn good.

The crew spoke in Hebrew first, then English. They were mostly young, pretty, friendly women who are 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 them up for a while.

I had no idea what kind of food El Al would be serving so I pre-ordered us one of the many options on their website (for free). It turned out that like every other airline, they offered beef or chicken. I had chicken with rice and string beans while Natalie had the Asian vegetarian meal. NOTE: All meals came with a Kosher certificate. TIP: Like most airlines, those who pre-order special meals get their meals first; ours came out 10 minutes earlier than the rest. We were served at 2:30pm, 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 for rent for $15 a pop or you could watch the entertainment being played on the overhead monitors with news, shows and movies (they showed four movies), just like the old days.

FYI: All the seats had thick blankets that were wrapped in plastic and smelled of detergent, which is a great sign that they're clean.

The flight crew works their tails off. They came down the aisles with bottled water every hour and they also cleaned the bathrooms regularly. Throughout the flight, they had snacks and sandwiches (tuna fish or veggie) set up in the back galley.

I don't sleep well on planes unless I'm lying completely flat so I let Natalie stretch out over the three seats and I sat across the aisle in one of the two vacant seats and stared out the window, all the while shaking my head in disbelief that I was on my way to Israel. It was almost unfathomable. At one point, I saw some familiar coastline and I asked the flight attendant where we were. She didn't know so she called the pilot. It turned out it was the South of France, which I was lucky enough to have bounced around the year before – too cool.

Two hours before landing, the crew came around with hot towels and served breakfast. We didn't order any special breakfast meal but since we had put in an initial request, our breakfast reflected what we'd chosen for dinner and we got ours first again. I had eggs, a bagel, cheese and fruit while Natalie had Asian veggies, potatoes, fruit, salad and a bagel.

Overall, I was really impressed with El Al's service and it was a dream flight for us. Why? There happened to be a number of empty seats, allowing us to spread out and be more comfortable and the flight crew were really gracious. 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.

One of my big questions was: Should I get a passport stamp or not? I heard some countries (like Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria) won't grant you entry if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport. I decided to get one because if an entire country can be that narrow-minded, then maybe I don't want to spend my money in their country. However, if you don't want to get your passport stamped, the flight attendants will give you a form to fill out. Otherwise you don't need to fill out any entry cards, which is really nice. Also, I've heard that if you do have an Israeli stamp, you can get a second passport.

It was exciting when we landed in Tel Aviv. First of all, all the passengers clapped, which I love, because air travel truly is a miracle and more people should appreciate it. Secondly, the Ben Gurion International Airport is really styling! It just had a complete renovation and you could tell. I didn't mind the long walk to passport control since they had huge glass windows and sloping sidewalks; one for arrivals and the other for departures. I couldn't help notice that the people who were departing weren't smiling which is always a good sign that they're sad to leave. I think it's safe to say: I'm going to love Israel!

FYI: It didn't take more than five minutes to get processed.

Next week: Jerusalem! Stay tuned.

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Note: This trip was sponsored in part by El Al.

Copyright 2009 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip




Friendly Agents


EL AL 767


KLM Lounge


About To Board


Boarding EL AL


Blankets Wrapped in Plastic






No Swine Flu Here


Entertainment Systmes for Rent


Beverage Service


Drink and Crackers


Chicken & Rice


Kosher Meals


Great Service


Snacks In The Back




Tight Squeeze


About To Land


Passenger Praying


Tel Aviv


Ben Gurion Int'l Airport


Styling Airport


Heading to Arrivals




  • Hey JJ! Loved your issue today! Great NBTA write up. Also, loved the web cam of Ocean Park in Puerto Rico. I used to live there and that was MY beach. Cool to see the cams! Chris M – Atlanta

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  • I don't think I've ever traveled anywhere I didn't like. I especially like traveling to countries whose languages I speak (other than English). I even studied Japanese for a couple of years before going on a six-week trip to Japan when my son and daughter-in-law were living there. We travel the opposite way from Johnny Jet -- he goes for the high-priced hotels, and we go for more economical lodgings. We spent a month in Xalapa, Mexico (our sister city), in November and stayed in a four-bedroom apartment for $400 for the whole month. We ate the "comida corrida" (special of the day) every afternoon at a restaurant; and starting with soup and ending with a light dessert, including a meat course with the veggies and potato/rice, we paid anywhere from $2.80 to $10.00 (for a big splurge at a fancy restaurant). We can't live here for that! But I really enjoy following Johnny's travels to places we've been and places we'll probably never go (we are now retired). I can dream of staying in luxury accommodations and getting massages in the hotel spa! But I love seeing his photos of the places he goes. I have been following his travels on Facebook, too. I'm even enjoying the travel convention in San Diego. Vicki B - Omaha, Nebraska

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