Israel’s top aviation writers came to Seattle at the end of January to get a close look at the latest jets to join the El Al fleet. The Israeli journalists, joined by half a dozen members of the American Jewish press, spent three days visiting Boeing factories to learn the details of the deal as guests of the aircraft manufacturer; Rolls-Royce, which is supplying the jet turbine engines for the three new planes; and the airline itself.
The occasion was the formal delivery of the first of three next-generation 777 jumbo jets for the El Al fleet being brought in to replace the oldest of the company’s Boeing 747 workhorses. Over the course of the trip, the reporters were given an inside tour of the Everett production facility where all Boeing’s largest jets are put together, and took an inaugural flight around Puget Sound in the Galilee, the first of the three planes to be delivered to the national carrier.
The group included the dean of Israeli aviation reporters, Daniel Shalom, currently the senior aviation and defense correspondent for Hatzofe and the author of several books on the history of military and civilian aviation in Israel. Other senior members of the aviation press making the trip from Tel Aviv to the Puget Sound were Arie Egozi, senior defense and aviation correspondent for Yedioth Achronot and Flight International, Ami Ettinger of Ma’ariv and Arie O’Sullivan, from the Jerusalem Post.
For much of their time, the reporters were being given detailed presentations covering every aspect of the aircrafts, from the size and thrust of the twin jet engines (95,000 pounds maximum each for takeoffs) to the number and width of the seats in the coach section (245 seats, 18 1/2-inches wide – plus armrests). A steady stream of factoids awaited the avid aviation reporters at every stop:
• The Everett assembly building, which stands more than 114 feet tall and is 2.2 miles around, covers an area of 4.3 million square feet – enough to hold 911 NBA basketball courts, or the entirety of Disneyland, with 28 acres left over for parking.
• The wingspan of a 777 is exactly as long as a football field.
One matter raised repeatedly by reporters during the briefings was whether the public pressure applied to the State of Israel by then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright to buy from Boeing had a substantial impact on the decision-making process. El Al officials and spokespeople denied that there was any demand from the Transportation Ministry to choose the American jets over their European rivals, the Airbus 330. Martin Johnson, the Rolls-Royce representative, pointed out that Albright had also lobbied for engines from either Pratt and Whitney or General Electric, but the airline had chosen the British-made jet turbines, regardless. Airlines typically purchase the engines separately from the jet bodies and have them installed during the assembly.
David Hermesh, who took over as president of El Al last November, was also in the area to celebrate the airlines’ acquisition of the new jets and held a pair of informal press conferences with the American and Israeli reporters. When he was asked the question, Hermesh said the decision to purchase the Boeing jets was made in 1999, a year before he took the reins as president, and that in the future the airline might choose to buy either from the American manufacturer or Airbus.
Hermesh praised the advanced technology of the 777s, which extended beyond the computer-controlled electronic cockpit to the “Jetsons”-like first-class seats, which have separate controls for leg- and foot-rests, seat-back positions (including a completely horizontal “bed” button) and one to raise and lower the built-in lumbar cushion.
Hermesh was also questioned closely about the plans to sell the state-owned El Al to private stockholders. His answer was that although the decision had been made in principle a number of years ago, the actual process of privatization has continually hit snags that have prevented it from happening.
“The decision has already been made, but every time you have to start the process completely,” he said. “Sometimes, even when you [think] you are at the end of the road, sometimes you see that you are at the beginning. We will have a new election next week, then we will have a new government. I’ll do whatever I can to pursue my mandate to go on with privatization.” Asked if he meant that the political will was not there to move the privatization proposal forward, he responded, “It’s not because of the government, it’s the economic situation.”
When Hannelle Rubin, of the Long Island Jewish World, asked if Shabbat was still a major issue, he joked that “Shabbat is a major issue every week.”
“Shabbat is not the issue – the issue is economical. If the new owner, not the government, decides to fly on Shabbat, I think the public will accept it. It’s an issue if you would not want to do it; if you want [privatization], then it’s just a decision.”
American reporters also quizzed the El Al president on the wisdom of investing several hundred-million dollars in new aircraft when the airline had failed to show a profit in the past two years. Hermesh explained that Israeli tourism was projected to grow by 15 percent in 2000 over 1999 and had been on target for the first nine months of the year. When the violence broke out in the West Bank in October, it disrupted that flow, with anticipated millennium pilgrimages by Christians to the cities of Bethlehem, and Jerusalem near Christmas especially hard hit.
He also defended the decision to go ahead with the delivery of the new planes as a long-term investment in a future that he sees as likely to improve in the coming years.
“You don’t build an aircraft for a short period of time, or an airline for a short period of time – it’s for years,” Hermesh said. “If you’re aware of the history of the crisis of tourism in Israel, you understand that after every crisis there is a boom. Probably not this year, but in 2002 and 2003, of course. That,” he added, “is the reason that we invest the money that we do.”