by Alec Goldwyn
ALL PHOTOS: ALEC GOLDWYN
Airline: El Al Israel Airlines
Flights: LY28, LY27
Route: Newark Liberty International Airport (IATA: EWR)–Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV), and return
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200
Because of El Al’s stringent security procedures, I arrived at the airport at 0930, well in advance of my 1330 departure time. Having never flown El Al or any other airline as serious about security as it claims to be, I was slightly intimidated by what awaited me. While waiting for the check-in counters to open, several agents set up retractable stanchions and ‘music stands’, to create ‘stations’, for want of a better word, where they would question the passengers. I joined the line and walked up to the first available agent. With the number of people waiting to check in growing, including one lady with eight suitcases, a few more agents arrived to boost the total to eight, standing in a line interrogating passengers.
Gili, as her name-tag informed me, called me up and we began what seemed to be a friendly conversation. She took my passport and placed a yellow sticker on a Post-it note upon which she began to write notes about our conversation. “What do you study in school?” “How old are you?” This went on for a few moments before the questions became more relevant to travelling. “Do you know anybody in Israel?” “Have you been to Israel before?” My answer was no to both questions.
I began to notice that some people were passing through much faster than I was, which made me slightly curious. “Has anyone given you something to bring to Israel? The reason I ask is because I’m concerned someone has given you something dangerous to bring on board the ’plane today,” Gili said. In my attempt to appear convivial, I must have let on too much about my interest in aviation and flying. She looked me straight in the eyes, and with a smile told me she would be right back. A few minutes later she returned with a new set of questions. “What are the names of your parents?” “Where were you born?”
Because I am a dual US/Colombian citizen, my US passport lists my place of birth as Colombia, which must have struck her as odd. I could only imagine what she was thinking at this point, and wondered whether all the red flags were going up. A Colombian-born Hispanic male with a Jewish last name and a strong interest in aviation attempting to board an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Nothing out of the ordinary.
When she finally seemed satisfied with my answers to her questions, I gave a quick sigh of relief and headed to the ticket counter to pick up my boarding pass. I knew my flight would be on a 777-200, however, without a pre-assigned seat, I was anxious to discover what I had been allocated. As my tickets were handed to me my heart sank: 22E. Anyone familiar with the 3-3-3 layout of the 777 knows exactly this location. The middle of the middle seat block. I quickly enquired if there were any available window seats, to which I received a curt and indifferent response of “no.”
Deflated at the thought of a 12-hour flight in the middle seat, I made my way to security. Passing through quickly, I made my way to the gate and found a nice quiet area to sit and watch the airplanes arriving and departing. Lo and behold, as soon as I settled into my spotting spot, an announcement came over the loudspeaker, requesting my presence at the gate. ‘Oh great! They found me a window seat,’ I thought, and was no longer resigned to my impending fate. To my surprise—and ultimately dismay—I was not offered a window seat, but rather was escorted to a seat in a small white room with magazines and a TV playing a DVD of a U2 concert. I sat in this room for about 20 minutes before they asked to search my bag. After swabbing my hands, my phone, wallet, and interior contents of my bag, they brought me behind a curtain and had me take off my sweatshirt and pull down my pants to be wanded.
At this point I was becoming a little frustrated with the whole process, considering I’m probably one of the least likely people to cause any sort of problem. I have Gili to thank for her questions, my responses to which apparently didn’t satisfy her. I finally boarded the aircraft at 1220 after being escorted to the door by an agent, and was led to my seat by a flight attendant. I was pleased to note that this was one of El Al’s newest 777s and consequently had the new Panasonic eX2 entertainment system. We pushed back exactly on time, and taxied out to Runway 4L. After a nearly 40-second takeoff roll, we headed northeast toward Newfoundland.
Very shortly after takeoff the seat belt sign was turned off, and around 1345EST the first beverage and snack service began. After 45 minutes, the flight attendants passed through the cabin serving lunch, a choice of pasta Bolognese or chicken and rice. Both meals were well presented, and having chosen the pasta, I can say it was quite tasty. A fresh side salad as well as hummus and warm pita bread were served, with a chocolate brownie for dessert.
After having my fill of lunch I decided to sample the entertainment options. Toward the end of the second movie I selected, the sun began to set while abeam St Johns. Returning to my movie, and at 1754EST, with 5hr 19min to go, we encountered some turbulence off the Irish coast. The captain turned on the seatbelt signs, and for a few moments we were jostled around. Unfortunately for me, the rough air awoke the two sleeping children seated behind me. Not at all pleased by this abrupt end to their slumber, they let everyone—and especially the back of my seat—know it. It got to the point where the aforementioned woman who was checking in eight bags, who was seated next to me and had lived in New York City for the past five years and was returning home to Israel, called the flight attendant in an attempt to resolve the situation.
With 2hr 20min remaining, the lights came on and slowly the cabin returned to life. I’m not sure how I missed it before, but this 777 featured mood lighting in the business class cabin, which was visible above the curtain and extended for a few rows into economy. However, for us stuck back in economy, the white LEDs (light-emitting diodes) had to suffice. Hot towels were distributed, along with breakfast, which was a choice of an omelet or fruit. I chose the omelet—which wasn’t overcooked or rubbery, as I had feared—along with fruit, a bagel, olives and tomatoes, a cookie, orange juice, and hot tea. At 2234EST, we began our approach, and within 45 minutes were on the ground, exactly at 0616 Israel time. Deplaning was a quick process, and although getting to immigration took a while, the actual process was relatively straightforward and I had my bag in hand at 0635.
I was looking forward to my return flight to experience the security procedures at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. With a 0040 departure, I arrived around 2130 to allow for any unforeseen issues. The bus I took to the airport went through a serious of slalom-like checkpoints, apparently to allow for a visual inspection of the vehicle. Upon entering the airport, before even checking in, passengers are ushered into an initial security checkpoint. Standing with our soon-to-be-checked bags, El Al security came down the line, asking a simplified version of the same questions, although this time addressed to small groups of two or three passengers. Determined to not get singled out again, I answered this set of questions to the best of my ability and succinctly. I brought my suitcase over to an X-ray machine where the operator placed a bar-code sticker on my bag, with an identical sticker on the back of my passport. When my bag came through the other side of the machine I was instructed to bring it across the hallway to be inspected, where the officer pulled a package of Dead Sea mud out of my bag and, with a smile, asked me where I got it. “At the Dead Sea,” I said plainly. She repacked it and wished me a pleasant flight. On my way to the counter to pick up my ticket, I was hoping to have better luck with my seating assignment. Given 24B, at least this time I was close to a window.
As a relatively frequent flyer, by the time I get to the passenger security checkpoint I’m always ready with my shoes off and my laptop and liquids out. However, such was not the case on this particular evening. Clearly having jumped the gun, I was now holding up the line while struggling to put my shoes back on and zip up my bag. After a short walk through a series of turnstiles I arrived at passport control, where I received my exit stamp. By this time it was nearly 2300, and I decided to explore the vast array of duty free shops located in the terminal.
At 0010 boarding began at Gate C7. As more people boarded, I noticed one of my travel companions was seated in 30A. I asked to switch with the young girl in 30B, who didn’t seem to care much about where she was seated. As this entire flight would be in darkness, it didn’t really matter much if I was close to a window, but I still liked the idea. We pushed off at 0100 and taxied over to Runway 26 for a slightly delayed departure.
Once airborne, the air show appeared on the screens ahead of us, indicating our flight this morning would be covering 5,682mi (9,144km). We turned to the northwest and climbed out through clouds, which broke around 10,000ft. Shortly thereafter, the flight attendants unbuckled themselves and began the snack and beverage service. By now, most passengers were already asleep. At first it struck me as odd as to why dinner was being served at nearly 0200 (Israel time), but because we were scheduled to arrive in Newark at around 0600 EST it made sense that by sticking to a relatively normal eating schedule, passenger fatigue upon arrival would be reduced.
With the same meal options as the outbound leg, I opted for the chicken and rice for a change. As soon as dinner was served, the lights were dimmed. There were 8hr 10min of the journey remaining, so I figured now would be a good time to get some rest and watch a movie or two. While the return flight was also a 777-200, it didn’t feature the same updated IFE, with movies playing in intervals of 15 minutes or so.
Abruptly at 0945 Israel time, the lights were turned on and breakfast service began. With only one meal option (the omelet), the crew made quick work of distributing meals to anyone with their tray table down. After breakfast, landing forms were handed out. With preparations being made for landing at 1239IST/0539EST we began our descent toward Newark. On approach to Runway 22L, we broke through some low clouds and rain and touched down exactly at 0619EST. Following a short taxi to Terminal B, we deplaned and headed for immigration. I was surprised at how long it took to complete the post-international flight formalities, considering it was still only 0630. Eventually, I passed through immigration without a hitch, collected my suitcase, and by 0745 was in a cab on my way into New York City.
My experience with El Al was quite pleasant. While I was singled out for additional screening upon leaving EWR, the agents were always courteous and respectful, and seemed to be empathetic that nobody wants to be in the situation of stripping down to their undergarments before boarding an aircraft. The service onboard was excellent as well, with a good selection of appetizing and tasty food, and entertainment options on par with other European carriers and even some of the better Asian ones.
Security procedures at Tel Aviv were, understandably, more organized and efficient. Ben Gurion Airport also had a generous selection of duty free shops and restaurants at which to spend your last shekels before leaving Israel, or—as the Israelis would say in my case—“before leaving your home for a short stay in America.”
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