Despite tourism drop, El Al improves service from L.A.

The 17 months of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians have taken a toll on just about every aspect of Israeli life. The tourism industry is no exception; in fact, that economic sector is among the hardest hit, with declines of about 40 percent from 2000 to 2001, according to the Ministry of Tourism. Some tour operators and hotels report a far higher drop in business.

Nevertheless, El Al, Israel's national carrier, has seen only a 30 percent drop, said Bill Gale, the airline's West Coast regional manager, based in Los Angeles.

Gale, who was in San Francisco recently, attributed El Al's relatively lower decrease in passengers to its reliable flight schedule, services and security.

When asked to elaborate on El Al's response to the rise of terrorism both in Israel and post-Sept. 11, he did not go into specifics.

"We make a fairly simple statement, and that is we always maintain the highest level of security at all times," he said. "El Al has learned from painful historical experience the need for maintaining the highest level of security, and for that reason, many other airlines are looking at El Al as the leader in the industry."

Long before the recent events, El Al has been known for screening passengers extensively before boarding. Because of this expertise, some former El Al employees have been working as security consultants in the industry.

"Obviously, we're happy to provide consulting advice," Gale said, "and many people formerly associated with El Al are now acting as consultants for other airlines or airport facilities."

Moving to the good news, Gale said El Al's service to the West Coast is improving.

"As we progress from winter to spring, we're continuing to increase our service to the West Coast. In summer, we will continue to increase our service, building our schedule by offering daily service."

Before December 2001, those who bought an El Al ticket from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv were flown to New York on an El Al partner called North American Aviation, then changed to an El Al flight. In December, El Al aircraft began flying to Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles-Tel Aviv flight makes a stop in Toronto, which allows passengers to avoid long customs lines in New York.

The improved service to the Southern California market reflects the fact that the region is home to the largest concentration of Israeli passport-holders in the United States, Gale explained.

And those Israelis make up a large percentage of El Al passengers; unlike tourists, who may put off their vacations until safer times, Israeli natives do not stop visiting their families during times of difficulty.

The other large contingent of current El Al passengers is American Jews on solidarity missions. In the past, Christian groups have been regular travelers, but the violence has been keeping them away.

"Obviously, the number of passengers traveling to Israel has been affected," said Gale, especially in areas of tourism and Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. "However, being the national airline of Israel, El Al maintains the vital link between the United States and other parts of the world to Israel."

Even before the current intifada, American carriers with service to Israel had either folded, like Tower Air, or stopped flying to Israel, like TWA and Delta.

According to Gale, El Al "filled the void, by adding additional flights."

While Continental offers one flight daily from Newark, N.J., El Al offers one daily flight from Newark and three from New York's John F. Kennedy airport, except on Shabbat.

Gale said that El Al is the only airline with first class service to offer direct service from the United States. In March, El Al will be adding another level of service, Platinum Class, which is between business and first class.