Israel's El Al is gearing up for the launch of direct flights between Tel Aviv and Melbourne next month, with three initial ‘trial’ flights across April and May 2020 holding out the promise of a regular service later in the year.
At an average of 17 hours (16h15m for flight LY87 from Tel Aviv, 17h45m for LY88 from Melbourne), this will be the longest route in El Al’s network and rank alongside other non-stop marathons such as Qantas’ epic Perth-London trek.
The three Boeing 787-9 flights will depart Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on April 2, April 23 and May 14, with returns from Melbourne on April 4, April 25 and May 16, and will be used to assess the route’s longer-term viability as the first direct link between Israel and Australia.
Testing the waters
“The trial consists of two major elements,” says Yoav Weiss, El Al’s regional direct for Asia, Oceania and South Africa.
“The first is the commercial one, whether there will be demand and whether people would be willing to pay a premium for flying non-stop.”
“The Australian market is a very good market for Israel, there is a very big Jewish and Israeli community in both Sydney and Melbourne,” Weiss tells Executive Traveller.
“We have have a lot of business coming from Australia, flying with Qantas via Bangkok or Hong Kong, and also via Johannesburg. But it wasn’t until we received our brand new Boeing 787 that we could consider a non-stop operation to make it all the way ‘down under’. This idea was going around for a while, and we decided to give it a try.”
This opens up the second role of these three special flights, “an operational trial, to see if planning of the flying routes is possible to execute in real time, what will be the fuel consumption, what will be the load consumption and so on,” Weiss explains.
“So in that respect, the operational trial is maybe the most important part of this trial, and alongside with the commercial part these three flights should give us a good picture of that aspect.”
While allowing that these three non-stop flights hold unique appeal to travellers, Weiss reports that bookings are very strong, especially with pricing that’s competitive against the one-stop alternatives. At the time of writing, business class seats remained available at around $5,300 return.
“The first two flights are rather filled up, we are now focusing on the last one and what we see in the last couple of weeks is (people are) now trying to prevent connecting via Asia – the demand for this flight is actually going up, unlike the trends to other destinations.”
El Al will fly its Boeing 787-9 with a full load of 288 passengers from Tel Aviv, but trim the numbers by almost one-third in order to make the return leg, which is rated at an extra 90 minutes flying time and battles headwinds rather than enjoying a tailwind boost on the inbound leg.
“From Israel to Australia, we can fly at full capacity (but) on the way back from Australia, we are limited to about 200 passengers,” Weiss tells Executive Traveller. "Business and premium we will fully sell, and economy will basically be like an upgraded product since the middle seats will be most probably vacant.”
From trials to scheduled flights
After the last of the three Melbourne trial flights returns to Tel Aviv in mid-May, Weiss says work will begin on assessing if there’s scope for it to become a more regular fixture on El Al’s timetable.
“We have working groups on the commercial side and the operational side, and one group that covers everything together. We will sit down in June to discuss the results of those flights and to try to build some economic model, based on the performance of those three flights.”
“Then we will test the result, see where we did well, where we can improve, and if there is a potential to turn it into a scheduled operation.”
Weiss says that while most of El Al’s Melbourne-based passengers on the three test flights will end their journey at Tel Aviv, an on-going scheduled service would realise the city’s role as a connecting hub to the rest of Europe.
“El Al offers many, many destinations in Europe, most of them on a double daily basis, and Ben Gurion Airport has a very smooth connecting process.”
A viral shadow
However, Weiss admits that the ever-present shadow of the coronavirus could still see El Al suspend its Melbourne trial flights.
“It’s getting crazy,” he admits. “These days we can’t plan more than ten days ahead. Whatever we try to plan mid-term and long-term it turns out to be very difficult these days, but at the moment we have no discussions of postponing our flights to Australia.”
El Al’s newest route from Tel Aviv to Tokyo, due to launch on March 11, has already been put on ice.
“Next week we were about to launch the first non-stop flight from Tel Aviv to Tokyo, and unfortunately we had to postpone the launch of those flights. This was a very promising market that we were looking at for a few years. But we are certain that once things will calm down, we will be able to launch this route and it will be very successful for us.”
In it for the ultra-long haul
Tokyo will be flown by the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, which has become a long-range game-changer for El Al, with the last of 16 deliveries due later this month, Weiss says.
“The Boeing 787 is opening new opportunities for us to add more destinations. We were very active this year in North America, we started to fly to San Francisco and Las Vegas, and this month we're starting non-stop flights to Chicago. So most of the growth is going to North America, but also we are looking for other markets as well.”
Inside El Al's Boeing 787 Dreamliner
London-based design firm PriestmanGoode helped shape El Al's Dreamliners with new seats and cabins, along with an updated livery to better reflect the airline's flag-carrier status.
The 'Business First' cabin features 32 seats with direct aisle access, and follows a staggered 1-2-1 layout which is similar to that of United Airlines' latest Polaris product.
Each seat is 21" wide, and combines a clear sense of well-appointed personal space with handy shelves and stowage nooks.
The seats transform into a 78" fully-flat bed, with plenty of movies and TV shows piped through to the 16" HD video screen.
The business class cabin itself is finished in rich tones of champagne, chocolate and wood.
Behind this are 28 premium economy seats – a first for El Al – in a 2-3-2 arrangement of 38" pitch. The seats themselves are 19.4" wide, with 13" screens and a personal storage recess on the back of each seat.
The 222 standard economy seats (30-31" pitch, 17" width) include 12" screens plus AC and USB charging sockets.
This video from El Al showcases its Boeing 787 'Business First' experience.
While El Al doesn't belong to any of the major three airline alliances, its position as a Qantas partner means that El Al flights can be booked using Qantas Points; El Al flights booked under a QF codeshare will earn a full serve of Qantas Points and status credits.