Despite War, Israeli Airline With Tight Security Keeps Flying
Jan. 28, 1991
NEW YORK (AP) _ In Hebrew, El Al means ''to the skies,'' but for travelers who brave the stratosphere that rings the war-torn Middle East, the name of Israel's national airline is synonymous with a single word: security.
Consider: Every El Al pilot has been trained by the Israeli Air Force, plain-clothed guards reportedly travel on El Al planes, El Al flight schedules are altered at the slightest sensation of unsavory circumstances. And that's just for starters.
The carrier is so confident - and committed to its role as a lifeline to the Jewish state - that it is now the only airline flying in and out of Ben Gurion Airport, located on a strip of diminishing green between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Sheryl Stein, a spokeswoman for El Al in New York, said flights in both directions remain ''pretty full'' despite the war against Iraq.
Strict rules preventing the carrier from flying on the Sabbath have been suspended - with permission from the Minister of Transporation and the chief rabbi - to allow Soviet immigration to continue unabated.
Business travel to Israel may have dried up, but waves of Americans and Israelis living in the United States are booking flights in a show of solidarity.
Zubin Mehta, for one, recently canceled a conducting appearance in New York to travel to Tel Aviv. And the non-profit group Volunteers for Israel said more than 700 Americans have sought assignments in Israel since hostilities broke out.
Despite the recent void of other carriers, ''there has always been a large segment of Israeli-bound passengers who will only fly El Al,'' said Jack Bloch, president of the New York travel agency JB's World Travel.
El Al's first flight was in 1948, and within a few years the carrier had airlifted 47,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel.
But El Al didn't start building its reputation for tough-as-nails security until it had endured a string of terrorists' attacks, beginning with the one and only hijacking of an El Al jet in 1968.
Since then a virtual mystique has grown around El Al's ability to shield itself from terrorism, though any queries about their strategies are met with a simple, ''We don't talk about it.''
''Their security is better'' than other carriers, said New York attorney Marvin Goldman, author of ''El Al: Star in the Sky.'' ''Their security personnel are among their highest paid employees. They're highly trained ... in the ability to psychologically assess potential threats.''
Security is labor intensive, and experts say El Al uses proportionately many more workers than U.S. carriers. Isaac Yeffet, former director general of security for El Al, has criticized the training given U.S. security agents as ''extremely low, insufficient and not effective.''
Testifying at a Congressional inquiry investigating the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, he said most American airlines ''hire security firms based solely on the lowest price.''
But it can be argued that as a state carrier, El Al can rely on the Israeli government to help pick up the tab. El Al's ties to the government are another subject not discussed.
The airline will not confirm events that occurred in 1960, when Nazi Adolph Eichmann was kidnapped in Argentina by Israeli agents and spirited to Tel Aviv on an El Al plane.
The pilot, unaware of his notorious passenger until the plane was airborne, agreed to refuel in Dakar, Senegal - the most out-of-the-way city possible - to insure Eichmann's safe arrival, according to ''Every Spy a Prince,'' by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman.
El Al lore may be rich, but the carrier has enjoyed financial success only recently.
For nearly a decade El Al was plagued by labor problems and was struck more than 68 times in a 10-year period. In 1982 the airline was put in receivership and was grounded for four months.
When it resumed operating, its work force had been slashed by 20 percent. El Al was dogged by jeers that its name stood for ''every landing always late,'' though it still ''has no qualms about not being this on-time carrier'' if security is at issue, Bloch said.
The company has been profitable for five years, Stein said. In 1989, the most recent figures available, El Al earned $24.2 million on revenue of $713.5 million. That year El Al transported 1.74 million passengers.
Plans announced more than a year ago to sell at least 50 percent of El Al to the public were called off in part because of the Persian Gulf war, Stein said. The move would have injected valuable capital into El Al, which has an estimated value of between $400 million and $800 million.
Experts say the plan could be revived at a future date. Until then, El Al stands ready to offer its planes to the needs of the state, and its rich lore lives on.