To Israel on Independence Day: El Al’s Business Class on the 737 From London Luton to Tel Aviv

Jun 19, 2019

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TPG Rating

72 100

Pros

Great food and a fun flight atmosphere celebrating Israel's 71st birthday.

Cons

Below-average ground experience and the recliner seats weren't comfortable for more than a quick nap.
4 Ground Experience
15 Cabin + Seat
10 Amenities + IFE
23 Food + Beverage
20 Service

With a big TPG outing to Israel in the diary, and after loving — and hating — El Al for many years, I wanted to give them another go.

El Al fly all of their varied fleet between London and Tel Aviv, so I wanted to compare what should be the worst of the business-class products, the recliner seats on the 737-900, against the new swanky Dreamliners.

Booking

We booked this flight as part of a return ticket between London and Tel Aviv, for a total of £1,268. If you’re UK-based, the only ways to book El Al flights with points are through the airline’s own Matmid program, which is quite convoluted, and through Qantas, which would cost you 38,000 miles each way.

Ground Experience

TPG Rating

4/10
4X-EHC

Tail

4yr

Age

10:32

Departure

4h 32m

Duration

The ground experience began at the airport where hopes and dreams go to die: London Luton Airport (LTN). Looking particularly glorious with all the construction work happening, the walk from the taxi drop-off to the terminal was particularly awful. Luton lacks the sexiness of larger airports, but actually isn’t small enough to add a noticeable element of convenience. It really is the worst of both worlds.

Even this, though, could not dampen my excitement for this trip and for flying what was once my favourite airline, El Al.

Checking in for an El Al flight is always an experience. I, of course, have nothing to hide, so I actually find all this questioning quite fun.

The minutiae that I was questioned about was astounding, and actually rather creative. On the Jewish festival of Passover, one ritual part of the Seder meal includes hiding a small piece of matzo somewhere in the house for the children to find. This is the afikoman, and it ultimately becomes the dessert for the festive meal.

El Al security wanted to know exactly where the afikoman was hidden this year, and who found it!

On the plus side, there was a separate security queue for business-class passengers, and as there was no queue here (and actually only a modest queue for economy passengers), I was seen immediately.

The El Al check-in area, over to the left, cordoned off from the rest of the check in desks

The check-in desks right behind the El Al grilling were staffed by airport, not airline staff, who looked bored and annoyed to be working the El Al flight. I had asked to change seats to a window, but the check-in agent forgot to print me a new boarding pass and couldn’t really work out how to put in frequent-flyer details that were missing. She also couldn’t find the stamp she needed to give me access to the lounge, so just scribbled “BUSINESS” across the front of the boarding pass.

El Al business-class passengers were afforded access to the Aspire lounge, in the main plaza of the departure hall, up the stairs by Accessorize.

The lounge had been refurbished since I last visited a few years ago, and was actually pretty great. The staff were welcoming, friendly and helpful.

There were plenty of different areas to sit in, and the lounge was rather quiet, so I had free choice of more formal table seating, sofa seating, or the interesting-looking SnoozePods, which were all empty. 

The breakfast food was being replenished with fresh items as I arrived, and there was a good selection of hot food (full English breakfast) as well as cereals, yoghurts and fruit. There was also a full bar, with a few lads already on the pints (well half pints, as they didn’t have pint glasses).

El Al also provided a separate section of fully kosher food for its passengers. This all looked completely untouched but was an OK selection of pastries, sandwiches, fruit and, most importantly, a giant tub of hummus.

The lounge experience was great, but this was not run by the airline, and El Al was about to do its very best to ruin the pleasant ground experience.

I made my way to Gate 28, at the far end of the terminal (around a eight-minute walk from the lounge). Boarding was manic.

El Al performed secondary security checks, which didn’t take long. They provided a small, separate priority boarding lane and seating area, and I didn’t have to queue to pass through, but once through the gate, I was stuck behind around 80 other passengers, standing on a stairwell, waiting to be allowed out onto the apron to walk over to the aircraft. There was no bypass for priority passengers.

After around 15 minutes of standing on the stairs (OK for me but not so much for all the elderly, little kids, those with buggies, etc.), we were on the move.

A healthy queue to board this single-aisle aircraft ensued, and the entire boarding process took quite a while, when eventually all overhead compartment space filled up, and people were forced to maneuver their way back down to the front of the aircraft to check bags into the hold. I was unaffected but enjoyed the stress unfold before me, peaking at the moment when the crew started literally shouting at people to get their bags to the front to check in to the hold!

Cabin and Seat

TPG Rating

15/25
2-2

Configuration

21

Width

44

Pitch

1

Lavs

Notwithstanding the manic state of boarding, I was still welcomed warmly by the crew. They didn’t know I was flying business class, as they were not checking boarding passes, and it made the smile and welcome that little bit more special.

The business-class cabin on this aircraft is arranged in a 2-2 configuration, with four rows of seats (and so 16 seats in total).

I was seated in 2K. The airline claimed that Row 1 was full, even though 1H and 1K had nobody in them, but it looked like all the seats were pretty much the same and all as good as each other. The front row may just about have had the edge in terms of feeling spacious without any seat in front, but there was no additional legroom. It later became apparent that Row 1 was blocked for crew rest.

The cabin felt airy and fresh on this relatively new aircraft, and the light blue upholstery in the interior helped add to that feeling.

The seat itself was not particularly comfortable. It was rather hard and manually operated to allow an extended legrest, lumbar support and recline. The recline was nice to chill, but was a long, long way off the flat beds that can be found on the other three long-haul aircraft that El Al will use out of Heathrow (LHR).

The seat in its fully reclined position
Not conducive to a proper sleep!

As it was a morning flight with a flight time of well under five hours, sleeping was not on the agenda, but anything more than a quick nap would have been difficult and uncomfortable. I would definitely recommend against the 737 for the overnight flights to Israel from London.

The foldout table was sturdy and good for working and eating on.

The seat also featured a universal power socket and USB port.

There was one toilet at the front of the cabin exclusively for business-class passengers. It was a very tight squeeze but did have a couple of nice additional touches in hand cream and a body spray for men and a separate one for women, which smelled OK but not OK enough to want to carry with me all day.

Amenities and IFE

TPG Rating

10/15
No

Live TV

No

Tailcam

1.3↑13.2↓

Wifi

Yes

Headphones

A padded zip-up amenity bag was provided. The bag itself was more promising than its contents. It included a toothbrush and toothpaste, earplugs, a cheap-feeling eye mask and socks.

Also in the seat area was a large, soft and comfortable pillow, a Hollandia-branded blanket, which was sufficient for a snuggle but probably not for a night’s sleep, and basic headphones and a bottle of mineral water.

Inflight entertainment was provided by way of overhead screens showing films, with an outlet in the seat to plug into for audio.

Also provided for free in business class was a tablet, which could be held by an arm coming out of the armrest of the seat. There was a decent selection of films, TV programmes and a moving map. I ended up floating down memory lane with 70 years of Israeli music. I started in 1948 and working my way forward.

Separate low quality headphones were provided to work with the tablet

By downloading the El Al Dreamstream app, all of the entertainment was available on a personal device.

Three levels of Wi-Fi were available, from basic (free but just for messaging) to a $19.99 business plan that allowed VPN usage. I got the latter, and it was impressive. On testing, the download speed was 13.2 Mbps and upload 1.3 Mbps. Downloading a 5 MB MP3 file would have taken three seconds, and a 35 MB video clip would have taken 24 seconds.

Food and Beverage

TPG Rating

23/25
1

Meals

No

Dine on Demand

Shortly after boarding, one of the crew, Eilat, offered me a drink — anything I wanted! I wanted fresh orange juice. They didn’t have it fresh, came the answer with a cheeky smirk. But the OJ they did have, with pulpy bits that were quite nice. Eilat was quick to offer me a second round as soon as I finished my first.

Menus and hot towels were handed out around 25 minutes after takeoff. The special-edition menu really got my excitement going, as today was Israeli Independence Day and they were serving a special festive meal in honour of Israel’s 71st birthday.

I ordered the omelet, but they actually brought the fruit plate by mistake. However, after a claim of FOMO, they served and allowed me to keep most of both options. Both, along with the tapas trio, raw tahini, and malabi dessert were all lovely and really set the scene for the trip ahead. It was a true taste of Israel, all fresh and delicious.

Malabi, a rosewater-flavoured milk pudding

It was washed down with tea, which came with the comment, “I left in the teabag because I know you English people like your tea really strong!” and it was much appreciated!

A later cup of tea came on its own little tray with a biscuit.

Right in the middle of the flight, very randomly, a basket containing packs of nuts was passed around without a drink service. I took a pack, but had to hit up my water bottle as a consequence.

An hour later, the basket was back! This time with packs of cute miniature bagels sitting alongside the nuts.

I ordered a cappuccino to go alongside this, and when it came back, the basket was back! A third addition of crackers had suddenly appeared, which were tasty, and the coffee was pretty nice as well.

It was not to end there. The crew brought round a tray of vodka and whiskey shots to celebrate independence day with chocolates arranged in a 71, Israel’s age on this day!

For such a short flight, I was impressed by the quality and variety of the offering.

Service

TPG Rating

20/25

I often find El Al service can be a little surly, whatever class you travel in, and I have experienced it in every class, on every aircraft, at every time of day.

The surliness that I typically experience with El Al always comes from a good place. It’s the Israeli way, no BS. There is always an underlying warmth, and a desire to get the job done, and if you are used to Israelis, I think this can be enjoyed much more, especially if you’re able to make fun of the situation.

When the purser barked “YOU NEED TO GET OFF!” at the lady who wanted to check her hand baggage because there was no room, it was not rude, per se. She wanted everyone to get off on time quickly and efficiently. Could she have got the message across in a nicer way? Sure! But as an Israeli would say, what’s the point? Toughen up! We left on time because we moved things along!

All that being said, once in my seat, I received welcomes from both Eilat and Dudi, the cabin crew looking after me. The greetings were actually surprisingly formal from an Israeli crew.

As the flight progressed, however, the crew really were great. Especially Eilat. She got me everything I wanted, was proactive with offering more food and drink, was quick and efficient and did everything was with a smile. She made the experience for me.

One huge criticism was the crew rest situation. It was bizarre that crew used three seats around to me to rest, without separation from passengers, so I was surrounded by three sleeping crew, eye masks on. In the row behind me, the crew member slept right next to another passenger.

This wouldn’t have been such a big deal, had one of them, directly in front of me, not happily reclined fully into my space whilst I was working with not even so much as glancing over to see if it would be OK. I can’t imagine El Al usually holding back 25% of the business-class cabin for crew rest, so there must be another solution. I’ve also never seen this exact situation before on El Al — crew sleeping for 90 minutes on a four-and-a-half-hour flight.

1K reclined right into me, with the head of the snoozing crew member just visible.

Overall Impression

I have flown El Al many times in my life and have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the airline. Ultimately, the second you reach the El Al security agents at check-in, the Israeli experience begins, and I absolutely adore it.

The service style is definitely not for everyone, and flying out of Luton is not ideal. The recliner-seat business-class product is also fine for a four-and-a-half-hour flight but lags hugely behind El Al’s wide-body business-class offering, and I can’t wait to sample the new El Al 787 Dreamliner on the way home. That could really be the flight that combines everything I love about the airline with a genuinely good hard product.

In conclusion, though, try El Al, as there is something magical about it, but head to Heathrow, where El Al flies its big planes from, for a more pleasant time, both on the ground and on board!

All photos by the author.

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