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  • Steve Jaffe

The New Middle-East Super Connector?

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

For a brief, shining moment over the past few weeks, the El Al route map expanded to nine new cities on world-girdling routes throughout the Americas, Asia, and Australia. From Lima to Seoul, and Houston to Melbourne, El Al was beginning to look more and more like a globe-spanning Middle-East super carrier.

El Al Repatriation and Cargo New Routes Route Map, Mar/Apr 2020
El Al Repatriation and Cargo New Routes, Mar/Apr 2020

Ok – reality check. These were all either repatriation flights or cargo flights. The only one of the nine stations El Al was considering prior to the Coronavirus outbreak was Melbourne, in which it was to launch three commercial “test” flights in March and April of this year. Not likely we’ll see scheduled service to Bogota or Perth any time soon. But it’s been an impressive show of how El Al can serve the strategic role as the national airline of Israel in times of crisis – as it has during so many times in the past.

Cargo flights

Houston (IAH), Seoul (ICN) and Shanghai (PVG) were all new, if temporary additions to the El Al network. But they were either one-off or multiple cargo-only flights operated with 787-9 equipment. The Seoul and Shanghai flights were to carry medical supplies, the latter being part of a dozen or so similar El Al operations within China from Beijing (PEK) and Hong Kong (HKG) airports as well.

The other destinations were all repatriation flights – and some of these posed major operational challenges. Let’s take a look:

Lima (LIM), Bogota (BOG), and San Jose (SJO).

By any measure, Lima is a long way from Israel. The great circle distance is 7,942 SM., but the avoidance of North African airspace adds another 200 miles or so. That’s well-farther than El Al’s longest scheduled flight – TLV-LAX at 7,574 SM. On March 19, the airline sent four 787-9s to pick up the stranded Israelis. The outbound flight time, with crew only onboard, was scheduled for 16 hours 15 minutes. The fully loaded return flights was scheduled for 15 hours.

LY041 TLV2315 – 0830+1LIM 789 18MAR20 LY043 TLV0030 – 0945LIM 789 19MAR20 LY045 TLV0100 – 1015LIM 789 19MAR20 LY047 TLV0515 – 1430LIM 789 19MAR20 LY042 LIM1230 – 1030+1TLV 789 19MAR20 LY044 LIM1330 – 1130+1TLV 789 19MAR20 LY046 LIM1430 – 1230+1TLV 789 19MAR20 LY048 LIM1630 – 1430+1TLV 789 19MAR20

El Al Flight 43 Tel Aviv to Lima 3/18/20
El Al 43 TLV-LIM 787-9 3/18/20

There’s an interesting side-story associated with these flights. About 600 Israelis were stranded in Cuzco. The Israeli embassy had arranged for charter flights to fly them to Lima. But the Peruvian government had put Cuzco under lockdown, with no ability to enter or leave the city. Intense negotiations between the two governments finally saw a breakthrough, in which the charter flights were cleared and the Israelis were finally connected at Lima to the El Al airplanes that had waited over 24 hours for their arrival.

Passengers on onboard El Al flight from Lima to Tel Aviv 3/19/20
Happy passengers aboard El Al flight home from Lima 3/19/20

As an aside, showcasing the popularity of Central and South America to the Israeli post-army backpacking crowd, El Al also operated rescue flights from Bogota (BOG) and San Jose (SJO). Both destinations were flown non-stop on 787-9 equipment and went off without a hitch.

New Delhi (DEL)

The Israeli government arranged with its counterparts in New Delhi to repatriate hundreds of its citizens remaining in India. Both El Al and Air India operated a New Delhi -- Tel Aviv repatriation flight. But while both used 787 equipment, they were quite dissimilar operations. Remember – Air India was granted Saudi overflight rights for routes to Tel Aviv – a privilege not yet extended to El Al or any other airline. The results are below.

Air India repatriation flight Delhi to Tel Aviv 3/26/20
Air India 139 DEL-TLV 3/26/20

El Al 73 repatriation flight Tel Aviv to Delhi 3/26/20
El Al 73 TLV-DEL 3/26/20

Perth (PER) and Melbourne (MEL)

Arguably the most interesting, and challenging, of all the El Al repatriation flights were its Perth and Melbourne missions. Recall that the airline had previously announced in 2019, and opened for booking, a series of three non-stop Tel Aviv – Melbourne roundtrip flights to test the marketing and operational considerations in order to ascertain whether the route could be viable for regular scheduled operations. COVID-19 put an end to that, but the silver lining is that El Al was, ironically, able to operate non-stop flights to and from Australia, albeit in the weird Coronavirus context.

In the first mission, Israelis scattered around Australia, New Zealand and Oceania were flown to Perth, where they would board an El Al 787-9 to fly them back to Israel. Restricted from overlying the Arabian Peninsula, the flight tracked the same Red Sea route regularly used by El Al on its Bombay and Bangkok services. The ability to overfly Somali airspace significantly reduces the detour that would otherwise require flying east over the Gulf of Aden before clearing the Horn of Africa. The flight went without a hitch, and represented the first ever non-stop commercial flight between the two countries.

El Al Flight 88 Perth -- Tel Avvi repatriation flight 3/24/20
El Al 88 PER-TLV 3/24/20

The bigger prize came a week later. On April 2, El Al sent a 787-9 down to Melbourne, carrying a full-load of paying expat Australians returning home. The flight touched down at Tullamarine Airport at 6:17 pm, a full 16 hours and 50 minutes after takeoff from Ben Gurion Airport. Less than four hours later, the 787 would turn around, again with a full load, for the long trip home.

The return flight pretty well reversed course of the outbound route. After a more northwesterly track over Australia, exiting the continent over the Northwest Cape, the route continued over the long for hours over the long reach of the Indian Ocean (track not monitored by Flight Aware) before entering Africa over Somalia and continuing north-northwest over Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea and on up the middle of the Red Sea to Sharm el Sheik, Eilat, and then north over the Dead Sea and Jerusalem and the standard easterly approach into Ben Gurion Airport.

El Al Flight 88 arrives Melbourne 4/2/20 repatriation flight
El Al 88 arriving Melbourne Tullamarine 4/2/20

El Al 787 at Melbourne 4/3/20 repatriation flight
El Al 787 at Melbourne Tullamarine alongside Qantas A380 and Etihad 787, 4/3/20

The weary crew consisted of 18 – 6 pilots and 12 flight attendants – somehow juggled duty time with required crew rest – and ultimately worked over a 40+ hour time span as all crew members flew both directions. It was a proud moment for El Al, the latest, and arguably, the most technically challenging, in a long history that expands across many decades of serving the national interest of the State of Israel in times of crisis.

El Al Flight 86 Melbourne - Tel Aviv 4/3/20 repatriation flight
El Al 86 MEL-TLV 4/3/20; Flight Time 17:44

El Al Repatriation Flight Crew
El Al Repatriation Flight Crew

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