El Al used a fleet of Lockheed Constellation airliners on its early routes between New York and Israel.
El Al operated a Bristol Britannia turboprop like the one in this photo from the end of 1957.
In 1971, El Al began using Boeing 747 jumbo jets.
El Al began using jets such as the Boeing 707 from 1961.
El Al, the Israeli Airline
El Al, the national airline of Israel, is, like the state itself, a post-World War II entity. The birth of the airline occurred almost simultaneously with the birth of Israel, and following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 when the Jewish population of the British protectorate of Palestine set about creating a new nation. El Al Israel Airlines was officially established on November 15, 1948, with the goal of transporting Jewish immigrants from Yemen and Iraq into Palestine. The Israeli government held a 80 percent share in its ownership. The remainder was divided between various Jewish organizations including ZIM, a local steamship service. The literal meaning of El Al is “To-On” but is more commonly translated as “up toward the sky.”
El Al acquired several DC-4 aircraft in 1949 and began regularly scheduled operations to London in August 1949, followed by more routes in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1950, the airline bought out a South African airline known as Universal Airways, and initiated services to South Africa where there was a substantial Jewish community. El Al had the notable distinction of being the first airline based in neither Europe nor North America to offer regularly scheduled services across the Atlantic Ocean, which it began on May 16, 1951. El Al began flying a regular route between Tel Aviv and New York with stops in Great Britain (London), Ireland (Shannon), and Newfoundland (Gander). At the time, the airline used a fleet of American Lockheed L.749 four-engine Constellation passenger airliners. Overall, El Al was part of the postwar expansion in passenger airlines where commercial air service was no longer limited to European and American airlines.
While El Al served Israel's international travel needs, there remained a demand for a local airline to connect the north of Israel (especially Tel Aviv) with the southern region of the Negev. Consequently, El Al founded Arkia (Israel Inland Airlines) as a subsidiary. Arkia used De Havilland DH.89 aircraft, later followed by Douglas DC-3s, to connect Rosh Pina in the north to Israel's outlet to the Red Sea, the port of Elat.
El Al continued to limit its international services to the North Atlantic and South Africa through the early 1960s, although by that time, it had replaced its Constellation aircraft. On December 22, 1957, it began operating the new Bristol Britannia turboprop aircraft for nonstop transatlantic services. El Al was the second international airline, after the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC), to fly the extremely reliable Britannia planes. During this period, most large airlines were replacing piston-engine planes with turboprops. Gradually, El Al increased its Tel Aviv-New York service to five flights a week and within a year of beginning this route, had doubled its share of the Atlantic traffic.
The airline aggressively marketed its transatlantic services, especially to compete with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). For example, one of its early advertisements proclaimed “No Goose, No Gander,” referring to the two intermediate stops that BOAC made on its transatlantic flights—at Goose Bay, Labrador, and at Gander in Newfoundland. El Al prided itself in having fewer intermediate stops during transatlantic flights. El Al, however, could not compete with new jet airliner services offered by Pan American Airways in the early 1960s. It quickly began converting its fleet to jet aircraft such as the Boeing 707. Its first regularly scheduled nonstop jet service across the Atlantic took place on January 5, 1961 with a Boeing 707 leased from Varig, the Brazilian airline.
El Al's grew rapidly in the late 1950s. In 1951, it was carrying about 1,000 passengers per year, by 1957, it was carrying 8,000, and in 1958, 19,000 passengers. The number of passengers grew at a dramatic pace through the early 1960s so that by 1961, El Al was carrying 56,000 passengers a year, beating out such well-known airlines as the Icelandic Loftleidir and equaling the Australian QANTAS. In 1961, El Al was the world's 35th largest airline in terms of accumulated passenger-miles.
In the 1960s, El Al's fleet comprised a mix of Boeing 707 and Boeing 720B aircraft. In 1971, the airline began using the Boeing 747 jumbo jets and the smaller Boeing 737 aircraft. El Al retired the Boeing 707 in 1983 (to be replaced by the Boeing 767). The fleet was augmented by the Boeing 757 in 1987 and the Boeing 747-400 in the mid-1990s. By the late 1990s, El Al was flying between Tel Aviv and more than 50 cities in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. It had also signed code-sharing agreements with Iberia, the Spanish airline, and Swissair. El Al also owns kosher catering services, a hotel chain, and a charter airline that offers flights between Europe and Israel.
El Al was known not only for its high quality service but also its sensitivity to Jewish customs. Being primarily a state-owned airline, El Al was the focus of a controversy when the government of David Ben Gurion agreed to have El Al serve only kosher food on its flights. The government also decided not to fly airplanes between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Internationally, El Al scheduled flights so that they could leave foreign airports on the Sabbath but arrive after the Sabbath ended in Israel. The issue has been the subject of much controversy over the years as secular and religious groups have argued over the rule, often leading to clashes in airports. In the year 2000, as the Israeli government was considering privatizing El Al, the issue once again came to the fore. Those who argued for privatization believed that El Al was losing as much as $35-to-$55 million (estimates vary) per year because of the prohibition of flights on the Sabbath. If the airline is privatized, then this policy might finally be changed. The plan was to privatize the airline in two stages—with an initial public offering of 49.9 percent followed by selling off the remaining 51.1 percent. The plan has yet to be implemented.
El Al also performs duties for the Israeli Defense Ministry, many of which are classified. In October 1992, when an El Al Boeing 747 crashed in Amsterdam, the company refused to comment on allegations that the plane was carrying shipment intended for the manufacture of nerve gas. Local residents reported health problems related to the crash. Later, El Al conceded that, although the plane was carrying a chemical that could be used to make nerve gas, the substance was intended to test gas mask filters.
Since the late 1960s, El Al has been the target of a number of hijackings related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but none have been successful since 1969. The airline has a reputation for some of the strictest security measures of any airline in the world. Passengers are asked to check in three hours before their flight and are often subjected to rigorous questioning. All El Al flights carry armed air marshals, and cockpits are sealed to protect against attempted intrusions. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, many Western airlines have been considering El Al's precautions as a guide to future operations.
It is not clear what effect the events of September 11, 2001, will have on the fortunes of El Al. Some have argued that there will be an increase in demand for El Al services as passengers want to fly more secure airlines. Others believe that there will be a severe drop in demand. Like the fortunes of most of the world's passenger aviation industry, it will probably take a few years to assess the economic aftereffects of the attacks.
Davies, R. E. G. A History of The World's Airlines. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard. Aviation: An Historical Survey From Its Origins to the End of World War II. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970.
Trimble, William F. From Airships to Airbus: The History of Civil and Commercial Aviation: Volume 2: Pioneers and Operations. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.
“Gates of Jewish Heritage,” http://www.jewishgates.org/history/modhis/elal.stm
“El Al Milestones.” http://www.elal.com/glance/yat/milestones.htm