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Flight Review: El Al Business Class (787-9) From New York to Tel Aviv

I have long been fascinated by El Al. Since they became a Qantas codeshare partner in 2017, I have wanted to experience the Israeli national airline.

Long had I heard that El Al’s long-haul staples – the trusty Boeing 777-200ER – were not as fresh and comfortable as rivals flying on similar routes. But when El Al took delivery of their first Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in 2017, I was set determined to experience their long-haul product.

It only took me two-years!

(NB: This photo taken of similar plane at HKG)

Flying EL AL Business Class Boeing 787-9

Flight date: January 7, 2019
Airline: EL AL Airlines
Seat number: 14A (Business Class)

The Pros:

  • Really good seats on a (reasonably) new aircraft
  • Good food
  • Great in-flight entertainment system
  • In-flight WiFi

The Cons:

  • Intense security pre-TSA security at JFK
  • Outdated, difficult to use website
  • One flight attendant who came across as stand-offish

Booking

As a Qantas codeshare partner, I was able to book my Business class flight on El Al using my Qantas Frequent Flyer Points. It cost me 78,000 Qantas points and $28.20 in taxes and fees, which I thought was a pretty good deal for a 10hour 30minute flight.

Once I was ticketed, I went onto the El Al website to choose my seat. I noticed I was not able to do this until 24-hours before flying. In fact, even their call centre would not allocate me a seat.

The night before my flight to Tel Aviv, while I was out at dinner in NYC with my friend Aaron, I navigated El Al’s mobile website to choose the particular seat I wanted. Easier said than done. I found El Al’s website okay on mobile device but I struggled to complete check-in and obtain the seat I wanted.

Thankfully after getting back to the hotel in New York City that night I was able to complete check-in and obtain the seat I wanted.

Check-In & Security

I had been preparing for it. I had done the research about security entering and exiting Israel (as I am not Israeli nor Jewish) but never did I expect it to be so… I guess I should use the word ‘thorough’ but it was a little scary to be honest.

Read the full story of my El Al security experience at JFK here

As you enter JFK’s Terminal 4 – EL AL is located near Gate 4 – you will see a long line of desks emblazoned with their name and logo; but before you can reach the check-in desks you need to talk to one of the people standing at the white podium in front of it.

After an intense round of questioning, I finally passed pre-check-in security and had a big barcode sticker attatched to the back of my passport, I finally made my way to check in with a sticker in my passport.

I was one of the last – if not the last – person to check on as the security process for my flight (there was another flight a few hours later) had taken so long. Because of this, they only wanted to allow me to check in my big suitcase. I was insistent they check on a second carry-on size bag. If I had kept it I would have had three onboard bags, but they were giving me a hard time about it saying it was guaranteed to get lost.

I’ve checked this bag onto other airlines (Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Sri Lankan to name a few) and never had a problem. I’m not sure if this is a mark of American baggage handlers or Israeli baggage handlers; either way, it was a small frustration at check-in compounding on to the stress of the pre-security.

I had been watching the clock since security began and had to advise the airline staff that I was at risk of missing my flight if they didn’t hurry up.

I will give El Al this: even if security takes a long time, they will make sure you get to your flight.

A JFK staff member with an El Al lanyard around his neck picked up my carry-on bag and we were off; ducking and cut our way through security lines.

My ‘view’ in the pre-departure security waiting room

Pre-departure Security

I thought I had passed all of the security but when the JFK staff member left me at the gate I found out there was more.

A staff member took my boarding pass and led me to a white door with a silver nameplate reading ‘El Al’ on it next to the boarding gate.

Inside was a small, dark, dingy waiting room. A water cooler sat in the corner, a couple of magazines were left on the seats, and a TV playing an Israel Tourism video played.

I was allowed to keep my wallet and phone. Everything else – including the plastic bag holding my garlic bagel – was taken away from me to be swabbed and hand checked. Or at least that is what I assume was happening. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it and had a similar experience in Amsterdam a few weeks later when flying from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv with El Al.

After all the hassle with pre-check-in security and now this – something I had not been aware would happen – I honestly thought I may be strip searched as I waited in the waiting room; something I have never and hope to never experience.

Turns out they just wanted to hand search and swab all my carry-on. Bagel bag and all.

After they were satisfied, and received back two very poorly packed pieces of hand luggage, I was told to hurry and go to the gate as the plane was waiting for me.

Another JFK staff member escorted me to the waiting plane: I was the last passenger onboard. As we walked down the rank to the plane I stopped to take a photo of the plane. She warned me that the Israeli’s don’t like people taking photos and that I should be careful.

El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner from JFK New York to Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport | Photo by Nicole Smith | @NicoleTravelBug | Bitten by the Travel Bug
The photo I stopped to take when boarding El Al’s Dreamliner with retro design.

El Al Lounge at New York JFK

Business Class travellers with EL AL have access to the King David Lounge at JFK. Unfortunately, due to my very long security experience, I was not able to visit the lounge on this trip.

Cabin & Seat

EL AL’s 787-9 Dreamliner comes in a three-class configuration: Business, Premium Economy and Economy.

In Business class, EL AL offers 32-seats in a 1-2-1 configuration, all with direct aisle access. You’ll find that with this particular Recaro seat, some are given more privacy by being directly located next to the window, while others are more in the aisle. Both seats have pros and cons.

You can check the seat map on Seat Guru

I was seated in 14A. I had specifically chosen this seat 24-hours in advance when I completed an online check-in because it was a true window seat.

The pros of the true window seat are that you have slightly more privacy, are sitting directly next to the window (for the best views!), and will not be disturbed by passing people. I spend an hour-or-so sitting in an aisle seat mid-flight and it had me feeling like I was sitting in the aisle.

One thing to note is that the entrance to these true window seats is quite narrow to enter and exit the seat. Despite this, I think these are the best seats on El Al’s Dreamliner.

Overall, El Al’s 787-9 Dreamliner seats are superb. In fact, I would say El Al are among my favourite non-suite Business Class product and rival Cathay Pacific’s and Qantas’ seating.

I didn’t think I’d be won over by the unmemorable muted brown and cream tones of the Business Class Cabin but was surprised by how they made the cabin feel warm and cosy.

In fact, cosy is a good word to use for El Al’s Business Class cabin. From the cosy window seat to the cosy bedding (the plush blankets by Hollandia are found across their all-Boeing fleet. And the surprisingly plush sateen finish to the pillows was a nice touch) provided to use the true flat lay bed. The wood panelled tray tables just added to the cosy feel.

When I later did some reading about their design, I found that the design company was inspired by the textures and tones of Israel. For anyone who has travelled through Israel, you will understand the colour scheme. The cabin really does resemble the colours you’ll see out the window on the train from Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport to Jerusalem.

One thing I will say about the cream features: they show up every dirty spot. When I sat down I noticed the inside of the cupboard hadn’t been thoroughly cleaned and the two coffee stains were immediately noticeable.

El Al have thought about the details travellers want. From a mobile/tablet stand – which also acts as a handle for the tray table – to a ‘hidden’ reading light for when the seat is in bed mode. There’s a huge mirror inside the cabinet and the armrests can be folded away, giving your body slightly more room when sleeping.

There’s a single USB port next to the remote/headphone jack and in-seat power by your feet. A ‘shoe’ holder, which I originally thought, was a second literature holder (whoops!), and a drink bottle holder within easy access when sleeping.

All the buttons to control the chair and lights were next to my elbow, and the TV and menu contain more options and the crew call button. There’s also a hook for a coat.

My gripe about El Al’s Business Class seats would be that the hard product is quite thin. Every move that the guy behind me made, I could feel it. (In defence of the product: he was a seat grabber stander.) The other aspect, which I’d like to see, changed is the seat cushion. They are fine but for flights of 10-hours like El Al’s New York to Tel Aviv flights, I would like a little more cushion or a mattress for the seat, perhaps!

I’d also have liked to see the top of the personal storage space utilized a little better. While it’s a clever place to put literature, you aren’t meant to put anything there. I ended up putting my empty cups or other rubbish when I realised that some of the crew were a bit lax about picking these things up after service finished. The cabin was quite dark as it was a night flight so I will give them the benefit of the doubt.

Another trend that many airlines seem to be following at the moment is that there is no personal air conditioning nozzle. The air conditioning runs in a strip in the overhead ceiling area. The temperature was fine, if not a little warm during the ‘sleep’ phase of the flight, but for the most part, I was comfortable in a t-shirt.

The button underneath adjusts the level of light you allow in.

A note on El Al’s windows: Boeing Dreamliners don’t have window shades, instead they use an electro-chromatic technology which has five-levels of opacity from fully open through to darkened black which allows little light through. This cool new technology doesn’t just remove the window shades but also allows windows on the Dreamliner to be 65 percent larger than other aircraft!

This does mean the shades aren’t truly ‘closed’. Thought dark, if you are flying during the day, window seats may be bothersome for some passenger as there is still a very low level of light that will filter through.

It’s also interesting to note that unlike earlier model Dreamliners I have flown (Scoot and Royal Brunei), during the ‘sleep’ phase of the flight, you cannot ‘open’ the window shutter more than mid-way (level 3 of 5). A good thing, honestly.

Amenity Kit

Men and women are presented with the same Salvatore Ferragamo amenity kits onboard El Al’s Dreamliner.

Inside the fabric amenity kit you’ll find all the usuals – eye mask, socks, earplugs, toothbrush, toothpaste. There was also a travel size Salvatore Ferragamo Tuscan Soul lip balm and hand cream.

Honestly, the amenity kits are probably one area where El Al could stand to approve. There’s nothing wrong per se with their current kits but they do not say luxury nor do they really fit in with the cabin design. I was expecting something in a plush royal blue or creamy/brown tones.

The design has interior pockets which lead me to believe they are designed with a dual purpose to be reused as a travel wallet. I did appreciate this as so many amenity kits seemed to be designed to a throwaway.

Long-haul passengers on the Dreamliner receive different amenity kits than passengers on long-haul flights onboard the Boeing 747. After hearing how I had a love of flying and aviation, one of the cabin crew gave me one of these other kits (the white pictured below). Personally, I preferred the amenity kits from the 777 flights. They had a more luxury feel to them being made of leather. I also liked that they were filled with toiletries from La Line, an Israeli company.

Find out my best tips on how to re-use your amenity kits

In-Flight Entertainment

The in-flight entertainment system (IFE) was certainly among the better ones I’ve used. Each El Al Business Class seat is equipped with a 16” TV which can be operated by the touchscreen and remote. I had no problems operating the screen by touch and it responded quickly.

The IFE menu is easy to navigate and available in a range of languages, including Hebrew, English, and Arabic. El Al had a good mix of western, Israeli, and ‘traditional’ programming. In fact, I spent most of the flight watching their Israeli content (I recommend ‘The Unorthodox‘), plus ‘Night School‘ with Kevin Hart.

Options for Movies, TV, Music, Games, Kids, Traditional (eg. Hebrew titles which I ‘think’ may be religious in nature?) and an eReader with the inflight magazine – Atmosphere – available to read alongside a few other select articles.

Noise-cancelling headphones can be found stored in the personal storage closet near your elbow. While they don’t look like much, the sound is very good and does what they say. That said, they aren’t the most comfortable headphones. They tend to push against your ear, as opposed to cupping it like most other headphones (including my Bose QC35’s I travel with).

WiFi

El Al has recently launched WiFi on their European and transcontinental flights to select locations. I found it worked well for the majority of the flight from New York City to Tel Aviv (it wasn’t working at all on my flight from Tel Aviv to Hong Kong two-weeks later).

According to the home screen, it appears that the North American flights are still in testing and connection is complimentary while European passengers are now having to pay for the connection (though I accessed it for free on my Amsterdam to Tel Aviv flight a week later).

I tried using the WiFi throughout the flight and found it to be stable while in North America, intermittent over the Atlantic Ocean (that’s fair though), and not working once we reached Europe. In fact, I tested El Al’s inflight WiFi the whole way across Europe – from Scotland until 1-hour outside Tel Aviv – and I could not use it at all.

When I was able to use it in North America I found connection to be fast and stable. I had no problems accessing Facebook and Instagram on both my laptop and Mobile device. Even Instagram Stories played with ease (though buffering took a little longer once we reached Newfoundland, Canada).

Food

Overall I had a great in-flight dining experience with El Al Airlines despite a lack luster main course.

El Al offers a fully Kosher dining experience. Reading that before my flight I had flashbacks to dry pasta and bland breakfasts from my summer working at a (Jewish) American summer camp. You won’t find bland on El Al.

Meal cards are presented after takeoff. While all of the Business Cabin shred the same appetizers and desserts, there were three-choices for main meals: chicken, salmon or a vegetarian option. All food comes out together on one very large tray.

For my main meal, I chose the Chicken cubes in cranberry pomegranate sauce with almonds and served with herbed orzo and green beans.

To be honest, the main was not a winner. The cubed chicken was fried and dry, and the sauce did little to help that. There was two cranberries but I didn’t find anything that resembled or tasted like pomegranate. On the other hand, the herbed orzo (that is the above pasta which is shaped like rice) was moist and delicious!

Accompanying the meal, the appetizer was Gravlax with edamame beans and fennel slaw served alongside a fresh baby greens salad and olive oil-lemon vinaigrette. After shunning salad to feed my Shake Shack addiction (even more dangerous when there is one down the block from your hotel) for the best part of two-weeks, I was so ready for it. It was delicious. The carrot shavings were a little dry, but otherwise it was fresh and tasty.

Not being a fan of salmon I skipped the gravlax, though I do slightly regret it because the breakfast smoked salmon was amazing and it would have been nice to compare the two meals.

There was also a warm breadbasket. If they have focaccia rolls left be sure to try one – light, fluffy and very filling! It is important to note that there is no butter served with the bread because of Kosher law; dinner is a meat meal and breakfast will be dairy.

(Click here to learn more about what Kosher food is)

Dessert was assorted mousse cups, chocolate pralines and fresh sliced fruit.

The fruit plate was served with dinner and plentiful. In fact, the abundance of options beats any other airline I’ve flown. On my fruit plate there was kiwi, orange, grapes, orange, pineapple and melon.

Halfway through the flight as we were flying over Scotland I asked if there was any mousse cups, realising I had not had one for dinner and thinking they were saved for snacks.

Upon asking, the steward informed me that unfortunately the mousse cups were not delivered to the flight (drat! They’re the perfect mid-flight snack) but instead they had vanilla and chocolate profiteroles. To be honest, these weren’t great. Very heavy, very stodgy.

For a snack, he managed to rustle me up some fruit (I have a feeling it was from a breakfast tray), an extra chocolate profiterole, Israeli tea and a sesame biscuit on the side. Bless.

Breakfast was served two-hours before landing. The steward looking after me for the flight asked me if I’d like to be woken up for breakfast – and when – shortly after the dinner service. He also asked me if I would like to choose my meal then. I chose the home-style herb omelette.

It appeared that Amid, the server for my quadrant of the flight, had slept well and had coffee as he was cracking jokes and even perkier than I had seen him when we left New York!

With a flourish breakfast was laid.

Overall, the meal was good. The classic Israeli vegetable salad was fresh and crispy, though mainly cucumbers. A light salad dressing accompanied it. The omelette was a little bland but not too dry; but the smoked salmon and accompaniments certainly made up for it. Some melon was served on the side.

One really nice perk is that El Al serves all meals with metal cutlery and white linen service. It’s a small thing that makes the meal feel so special!

Can you order special meals on El Al?

All meals on El Al are kosher. In short, this means you will not find dairy in meat (dinner and lunch) meals – that means no butter for bread! – and no meat in dairy meals. Also, certain types of animals won’t be served such as pork and shellfish.

You are still able to choose meals catering to specific dietary requirements when you ‘Manage Your Booking’ on the ElAl.com website but meals will be prepared and made to meet kosher standards.

Bathrooms

Business class passengers on El Al have access to three toilets. One in the front of the aircraft, two in the rear.

It was a fairly standard bathroom, if anything a little on the small side, but it was kept well maintained throughout the flight.

I was particularly fond of the light fragrant spritz and lotions provided (there was also a mens but it appeared to have gone walkabout by the time I found my way to the bathroom).

Arrival

Arrival in Israel was a fairly straightforward process. I was prepared for another round of twenty-questions but the only two I got were “what are you doing in Israel?” and “why only four-days?!”

What happens when you lose your luggage with El Al?

Shortly before disembarking one of the cabin crew came up to me to tell me that my luggage had not made it onto the flight. She gave me – and two or three other passengers nearby – a piece of paper with the flight details, processes to locate the lost baggage desks, and some other information.

While it was a simple piece of paper, one neat thing to note is that it was in 3 different languages: Hebrew, English, and Russian. Flight attendants simply need to fill in one or two blank spots (the same across all forms) for ease of comprehension by passengers and ease of use by flight attendants.

After finding my way through passport control I checked the luggage belt just in case they were wrong. After I was sure it wasn’t coming, I proceeded to the lost baggage desk which is located to the right of customs.

The lost & found process with El Al was a bit of a mess. I found three people cut in front of me because there was no discernable queue (my inner quasi-Brit is coming out with a statement like that!) and the process was quite lengthy because of the confusion and time needed to attend to each passenger.

It took about 25 minutes for me to be served but thankfully the man who served me was excellent and had seen I had been waiting patiently for quite a while.

He was certain my bags were on the next flight (by that time it was landing within two-hours) but accompanied me to check the luggage belt again just in case, as the system said one piece should have made it (it didn’t).

I was given the option to wait until the flight arrived to get my luggage or to head to my hotel and El Al would deliver it “on a priority run tonight”. I said I’d wait.

After sitting around for 30-minutes he came over and told me my bags weren’t going to be on the flight and that I should just go to my hotel. He again assured me my bags would be on a priority baggage run later that day.

After filling in some paperwork, including explaining all my rights and how to make a claim, he gave me an amenity kit for people with lost luggage.

I’m not talking the socks and toothpaste that you get on board. All passengers who lose their luggage with El Al when arriving in Israel get a white (for ladies) or grey (for men) amenity kit choc full of overnight ‘essentials’.

Put together by Israeli company LaLine, inside I found everything from travel sized shampoo and conditioner to a brush, t-shirt and socks, feminine hygiene products and a comb. There was even a glass nail file!

It was a nice touch and eased the blow of not having my suitcase. Though admittedly it was also nice not to have to lug it on the train to Jerusalem!

While my luggage didn’t arrive that night as promised, they were fairly prompt with emailing and texting me telling me it had arrived in Israel and that I needed to call to provide ‘additional information’ to deliver it. I emailed them a form the following morning with all the information required… which was annoyingly exactly the same form I had filled out at the airport.

Two days later I was woken by staff at the Ibis Jerusalem City Center telling me my bags had arrived!

Is El Al a safe airline?

I’ve been asked this a number of times since I flew and – in my experience – yes it is.

Look, I may have complained about security (and I sure as heck did here and here), and truthfully, the multiple layers of security – including the blatant security profiling – added unnecessary stress for this first time traveller to Israel on El Al; but I’m a rational human being and I fully understand that it is there for a reason for such intense security when flying El Al.

El Al has been one of the most targeted airlines in the world but, after a hijacking in the 70s, significant measures have been put in place to protect the plane and its passengers, Despite hijacking attempts no incidences have occurred since.

Yes, it means stringent security, especially for those who are travelling solo, are not Jewish, or have a Muslim sounding name. It means being asked a bunch of – what could be perceived as nosy – questions; but despite that I would do it again knowing that I was almost certainly safe on my flight.

A lot of work goes into being named the world’s most secure airline, and it only starts with the intense security mentioned before.

El Al’s fleet have been fitted with anti-missile counter-measures (the only commercial airline to do so). While a standard practice with many airlines, they also have undercover agents (also known as flight marshals) on every international flight, but they are fairly easy to spot (on my JFK – TLV flight I found it difficult to pick the agent, but on my TLV – HKG route the guy was constantly pacing up and down the aisles – to the point of it being concerning why he was doing so – and talking to the crew.)

Airport staff at both JFK and Amsterdam Schiphol told me that El Al passenger baggage is kept 100% separate from the moment it is checked in by the passenger. In fact, you can see it in action at JFK where it was loaded up on baggage carts instead of put through the convey belt.

At some airports – like Schiphol – check in for the flights are made from the ‘at risk’ airline area. While in Amsterdam, Dutch army or police (I am not sure which but they were wearing fatigues) set up what I can only consider riot shields to stand behind and surveil us as we proceeded to check-in. This is before the questioning by the Israeli security officers.

Then, when you are boarding or if you have a window seat on your flight, look outside and you’ll see that the area around the El Al plane is cordoned off and there are security monitoring the plane.

It all seems like a lot, and it is a little, but there really is a reason why El Al has a near spotless security record in the last 40-years. They are a country the size of the US state of New Jersey, yet many of their neighbours do not recognise them as a country and refuse to have a relationship with them. Think about that for a minute.

Final Thoughts

As the sun began to turn the darkened windows violet many members on the plane began to stir. We were still 3-hours until our final destination, Tel Aviv (TLV), but the men were strapping on their tallit, their prayer shawl, and teffilfin – tiny boxes filled with prayer scrolls that get placed on their forehead and arm.

The sounds were mostly silent, save for the rustle of Torah and single syllables muttered under their breath; a silent prayer from the men on the plane as they rocked back and forth communicating with G-d.

I had my phone and GoPro in my pocket but this was their time, not mine. I watched them out the corner of my eyes – young and older – praying silently as the women slept on.

One thing I would like to point out to travellers who prefer to sit in the front of the cabin is that while there are curtains to dim the harsh lights of the galley, the crew doesn’t use them.

They do have limited lights on in the forward galley, however, even with the curtain drawn over the toilet/cockpit door, it does not stop the light. For this reason, I would avoid seating in the front few rows unless you require a bassinet.

If there was any airline I was worried about filming on it has to be El Al; even more so after the cautionary warning when I took a photo of the outside of the aircraft when I was boarding by one of their US employees (“Don’t let them see you do that! They get a bit funny about it.”)

Onboard was a different story. They appeared to have no problem with me filming… discreetly. Several members of the cabin crew definitely saw my GoPro out and even clamped to the chair at one point but none said anything. In fact, two of the stewardesses were quite happy to let me take photos of the cabin, and even more pleased when I said I liked El Al and the Dreamliner mid-flight.

Will I fly with them again? Yes, I will fly El Al again.

El Al’s new 787-9 Dreamliner is a great product, and I personally believe it beats the product offered by many other carriers on similar routes.

I truly enjoyed my El Al experience and would prefer to fly their Dreamliner’s 787-9 over Emirates Business Class any day of the week (yes, I did just say that…). Why?


This is NOT a sponsored post.
I paid for all my El Al flights using Qantas Points or cold hard cash.
All thoughts, opinions, and experiences are – as always – my own.

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