In a scene reminiscent of an Andy Hardy movie, Ozzie Goldman remembers walking into a Manhattan hotel room in May 1949 and seeing five men on bended knees hunched over a large map of the world and planning the first flights of a nonexistent Israeli airline.
Goldman, 28 at the time, had driven to New York from Montreal after reading of the fledgling state’s plans to start an airline. The aviation division manager of a Canadian company, Goldman’s expertise was in purchasing airplane parts. Within a week he became the seventh person hired by the new airline, El Al, and was named manager of material control.
The next weekend, Goldman and 20 other new employees were in an office at the Fisk Building here when Israel’s minister of transportation, David Remez, walked in.
“Ben-Gurion has a dream,” said Remez, referring to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. “Israel can’t afford what I’m about to do, but Ben-Gurion wants an ambassador of goodwill to the world.”
With that, he put a check on the table.
“Here’s some money to start an airline. We don’t know what it costs, but don’t come back for more.”
He left behind a check for $1 million.
Half was spent to buy El Al’s first plane — a DC-4 that United Airlines was retiring.
Today, as the airline celebrates its 50th birthday, it has a fleet of 29 planes and annual revenues of $1.2 billion. El Al is spending $600 million for eight new Boeing jets this year and is preparing to spend another $800 million to $1 billion to buy up to five long-range, midsize aircraft from either Boeing or Airbus.
El Al has also crafted a new, sleek logo for the tail of its planes — replacing the Israeli flag with a blue Star of David and two blue and silver ribbons. In addition, it has removed several rows of seats in coach class to provide passengers extra legroom and added another 20 seats to the 62 in business class on its 747-400 planes.
Nearly five years after an Israeli cabinet committee recommended the sale of 51 percent of the airline to private investors, El Al appears on the verge of going public as early as next month. But the sale will be limited to 49 percent of the stock, allowing the government to maintain a travel ban on the Sabbath that started in 1982 and eight other Jewish holidays.
El Al management is openly opposed to such restrictions. Board chairman Joseph Ciechanover said keeping the planes idle 20 percent of the time costs $36 million in potential net earnings. Such income would be crucial to the airline’s profitability — it lost $83 million in 1996 and $4 million in 1997. Last year El Al eked out a $25 million profit largely because of record lower fuel costs and the devaluation of the shekel.
Airline employees have sued the government in an effort to compel it to either permit Sabbath deliveries to compete with other carriers or preserve El Al’s air cargo monopoly. A quarter of the airline’s revenue comes from cargo.
But before the government can privatize El Al — something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged when he was elected in 1996 — several questions remain. For instance, how much control would the government retain? In May 1991, it commandeered for free 10 El Al planes to help carry out the daring rescue of Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa while rebels were closing in on the airport. In so doing, El Al set a world record for the number of passengers aboard one flight, 1,087.
The pilot of that plane, Arie Oz, a 32-year veteran of El Al, said the true number of passengers was actually 1,140 because mothers — frightened that their infants would be taken away — had concealed the children under their caftans. But Oz said the crew did not learn that until everyone disembarked and the passenger manifest had been completed.
“They were sitting in lavatories, on the floor, all over,” recalled Oz. “It was the most moving experience I ever had because I didn’t know what to expect. I remember sitting in the cockpit and seeing people walking in wearing robes and numbers on their foreheads” to enable Israeli officials to keep track of everyone.
“What fascinated me during the three-hour flight is that the people were so quiet,” he added. “For me, it was a most emotional flight.”
Another unresolved issue is how much the government will pay to maintain El Al’s reputation as the world’s most secure airline. The government now pays about two-thirds of the annual $70 million to $100 million security price tag. El Al instituted extraordinary measures following two terrorist attacks in 1968 against its planes and facilities. Since then, plainclothes armed guards have flown aboard every flight.
Oz, a former Israeli air force pilot, recalls being the first officer on a flight from Amsterdam to New York in September 1970.
“We were over the North Sea when the purser called and said there was a skyjacking,” Oz said. “She [one of the hijackers] was next to the cockpit door with what she said was a hand grenade, demanding we open the door.
“Our security guards, the purser and the captain fought the hijackers and overwhelmed them. The purser was shot five times in the neck and survived. I decided to land the plane at Heathrow Airport [in London].”
Over the years El Al, like other Israeli companies, was damaged by the Arab economic boycott against Israel. Goldman, now El Al’s manager of administration, said it was enforced from the start. When the first DC-4 was flown from California to New York in preparation for the maiden flight to Israel, Goldman said, the plane was stored in a hangar at Kennedy (then called Idlewild) Airport that was leased from Aramco, the firm that represented the interests of Saudi Arabia.
“We leased the hangar for two months at $100 per month,” said Goldman. “Two years later, the check came back. They said they couldn’t accept it because it came from Israel. So they did themselves out of $200.”
In the early 1960s, Texaco filled the tanks of a new Boeing airplane El Al had just bought in Seattle. But months later Texaco, to avoid a record of the transaction, got El Al to pay Boeing for the fuel; Texaco then collected from Boeing.
Reflecting on those early days, Goldman recalls the inaugural flight to Israel took 33 hours, including seven refueling stops.
Iso Mittelmann, who has been with El Al for 48 years and is now its traffic and customer relations’ manager, said the trip was not much faster in 1956. Pulling out an El Al schedule he had saved from that year, Mittelmann said planes left New York at 7 p.m. Friday and made five refueling stops before arriving in Tel Aviv at 7:45 a.m. Sunday.
“Today, the flight time is under 10 hours and our 747-400s have personal television sets at every seat,” he said.
A round-trip ticket in 1956 cost $788, virtually the same amount charged today in the off-season. The number of El Al offices worldwide has increased since 1956 from 26 to about 90. And El Al, which flew to 15 cities in 1956, today flies to 61.