Travelers joke that El Al passengers don't fly to Israel, they walk — up and down the airplane corridor, kibbitzing. Beginning June 30, they can start trekking from San Francisco.
For nine weeks, El Al Israel Airlines will have Sunday flights from San Francisco International Airport to Tel Aviv, with 45-minute stopovers in New York.
El Al's West Coast regional manager Rami Fischer says the airline added those peak-season flights because ridership on nonstop flights from Los Angeles rose 70 percent last year. Many of those passengers — a great deal of whom were teens — were Bay Area residents.
Fischer says if the SFO flight proves popular — and profitable — El Al will add it to the airline's permanent itinerary, which includes departures from New York, Newark, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Los Angeles. Additional gateways opening this year include Atlanta and Orlando.
El Al's Northern California sales manager Ingrid Oakes says that making the flights permanent "depends on the demands and support of the Bay Area community — which we anticipate will be overwhelming."
The SFO flight increases to six the number of El Al's weekly peak-season flights from the West Coast. The other five are out of Los Angeles, and two of those are nonstop.
Travel time from both Los Angeles and San Francisco to Tel Aviv is 13 hours and 30 minutes.
Peak-season round-trip fare from SFO is currently listed at $1,648. However, Fischer says, travel agents can often acquire the tickets for about $1,000.
Besides adding the SFO flights, El Al has also made numerous improvements to its inflight atmosphere.
"We've done a lot to change our service. In the past three years we've had a lot of competition," Fischer says.
Each of the airplane's 200 seats now is equipped with a private video monitor that includes six movie options. All beverages are complimentary.
A new family plan offers a 25 percent discount on the fare of the first child traveling, 50 percent on the second and 75 percent on the third (Sorry, the fourth child doesn't fly free but gets 75 percent off, too.)
El Al also has instituted "progressive clearance," a special line to speed returning passengers through the often long and tedious customs process in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Fischer insists those changes won't alter the ambiance of El Al flights.
Unlike other airlines, which serve as carriers to the world, El Al is specialized and "helps Jewish people from all over come to Israel," Fischer says. So "unlike other planes where people are sitting quietly, reading, settling in, on El Al everyone is talking, walking around. Some are praying.
"You step in an El Al plane and it's your first taste of Israel, your first meeting. That won't change.