Flight Review: El Al Business Class (787-9) From Newark to Tel Aviv
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An El Al business-class product that you'll actually want to fly — yes, that now exists. The Israeli flagship carrier, which has been known until now for its subpar premium cabin options, now has an aircraft in its fleet that gives it a fair shot at competing in the popular US-Israel market. That aircraft is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
El Al took delivery of its first Dreamliner in August, and since then, it's been used on routes from Tel Aviv (TLV) to Paris (CDG) and London (LHR). Tuesday's ceremony at Newark International Airport (EWR) marked the launch of the first transatlantic service on the new 787.
But instead of just touring the aircraft on the ground at EWR, we wanted to test it out to see what it was really like in action. So, I bought a one-way business-class ticket on the inaugural EWR-TLV Dreamliner flight to see if the product really lived up to the hype. And, indeed, the Dreamliner is a huge improvement for El Al.
American and El Al used to have a partnership that allowed redeeming AAdvantage miles for El Al awards, but that ended in 2014. Now, you can only redeem through El Al's own Matmid program, which isn't known for being all that rewarding.
You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to Matmid, but not at a very favorable rate — 1,000 Membership Rewards points will get you 20 Matmid points. When I was booking, El Al was charging, 3,500 points on the route between New York JFK and Tel Aviv — or 175,000 American Express Membership Rewards points. However, the specific flight that I needed, departing from EWR, wasn't available as an award ticket. So I booked a cash ticket.
Just about every day during a three-week search with the exception of two days returned the same results: $4,452 one-way in business class.
So, I shelled out the $4,452 for a one-way flight in business class. I paid using the Platinum Card from American Express to earn 5x points on the purchase. In all, the one-way flight in business class earned 22,260 Membership Rewards point. Based on TPG's most recent valuations, those points are worth $423.
One caveat: El Al's website is very difficult to navigate — like, very difficult. By the time I entered my passport information during booking, the screen timed out and I was forced to restart the entire process. You really have to speed through the process. I recommend copying your passport number so you can easily paste it in the appropriate field.
Once I finally completed my reservation, I was asked to select a seat. This section of the website looks extremely outdated, too. If you're used to the websites of domestic US carriers, be prepared to spend some time clicking around. I finally got to an awkward seat selection screen, but when I selected seat 13K, it didn't even show up on the seat map. When I checked in, though, it turned out my selection had saved. In short: El Al needs to update its site, not just its fleet.
Check-In, Lounge and Boarding
I had a bit of a different check-in experience than most passengers would. The flight was scheduled to depart at 1:30pm, but I arrived at Newark’s Terminal B around 8:30am to attend the media event that began at 9 at the Art & Lounge lounge, which is the one business-class passengers with El Al normally can access. A few other non-alliance airlines offer the lounge to premium passengers, such as La Compagnie, the all-business-class airline, and Norwegian. The lounge is also a member of the Priority Pass lounge network. So, even if you’re not flying in a premium cabin, you can still access it if you have certain premium travel credit cards, such as the Platinum Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve, which offer cardholders a Priority Pass membership.
The lounge itself feels rather small and cramped. With low ceilings and no windows to let in natural light, it’s not the nicest lounge in the world. It's also located before security, a good five-minute walk away. So you really have to plan out your airport experience and give yourself enough time to get through the screening process. In my case, it took 30 minutes to get through.
Boarding also wasn’t what most passengers should expect. Along with the other attendees at the event, I got a tour, albeit short, of the 787 before everybody else boarded. After I’d toured the aircraft, I hung out around the gate area and boarded as one of the first business-class passengers.
Cabin and Seat
Waiting at Gate 62 we found one of the two 787s El Al has in service out of 16 ordered. Registered 4X-EDB and bearing the name of the Israeli city of Rishon Letzion, this 787-9 was delivered in August.
Up until the delivery of the Dreamliner, the carrier operated only outdated 747s, 767s and 777s in its long-haul fleet. None of the business-class cabins on those aircraft offer lie-flat seats or all-aisle access. The Dreamliner is different, with improvements noticeable as soon as you step through the cabin door.
The neutral cream, grey and brown furnishings look refreshing, crisp and clean. The business-class cabin is very aesthetically pleasing. There are 32 lie-flat seats in the business-class cabin. As you can see, the cabin is arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, meaning that every passenger has direct aisle access. As a fan of the window seat, this is great news for me, as it means that I don’t have to step over my seatmate in order to access the lavatory or to stretch my legs.
Where the Dreamliner is also a step above the rest of El Al’s fleet is in that it offers lie-flat seats for business-class passengers. In fact, the seats themselves feel very much like United’s Polaris cabin.
Now, given that it is 1-2-1 and you do get more space, that means that there are better seats than others, depending on how you’re traveling. If you’re traveling with someone, you’ll want one of the two center seats in an odd-numbered row. In odd-numbered rows, the two passengers’ heads are closer, as there’s no table to separate the two. Those seats are 9D and 9G, 11D and 11 G, 13D and 13G and 15D and 15G.
If you’re traveling alone, you’ll have more preferable options. If you opt for a center seat, choose a seat in an even-numbered row — 10D and 10G, 12D and 12G, 14D and 14G or 16D and 16G. These seats have more space in between you and your seatmate because of the table in between. However, note that you’ll compromise privacy in the aisle with these seats.
If you’re traveling alone and want a window seat, the ideal options are those in the even-numbered rows — 10A and 10K, 12A and 12K, 14A and 14K or 16A and 16K. In these seats, the table is bordering the aisle and you’re angled toward the window — it’s the premier location for the most privacy.
The odd-numbered rows for window seats — 9A and 9K, 11A and 11K, 13A and 13K and 15A and 15K — are right up against the aisle. My seat fell into that last category. At the time I booked, it was one of the last remaining available business-class seats, with the exception of a window seat in the last row (too much galley noise for my liking) or a center seat. I went with 13K as I love the window seat and I didn’t particularly want a neighbor.
Privacy in my seat was rather limited. Your body slants toward the aisle. There’s a partition where your head rests in the upright position, but that’s about as much privacy as you get. While not ideal, I didn’t find that to be that big of an issue.
When in its lie-flat position, the bed is 78 inches long — or 6’5”. For my 5’7” frame, I had no issue with the size. I ended up sleeping for about 4 hours of the nearly 9.5-hour flight. However, for someone like TPG who is 6’7”, the bed could be cramped. The footwell is especially narrow, but I didn’t have any trouble fitting both of my feet in the well when lying flat.
Each of the seats has a large in-flight entertainment system (more on that later), as well as a tray table that pulls out from under it. The IFE screen swivels out, and in order to see it straight on, you have to pull it out from its resting position. When out, it can take up a lot of room and make the seat feel cramped — especially if the tray table is pulled out at the same time.
For someone who is bigger than me, I could see the seat feeling very cramped with the IFE screen swiveled out, the tray table out, the seat in a slight recline and the narrow seats. The seats are 21 inches wide, which is comparable to what you'll find in premium cabins on other Dreamliners. I found it to be comfortable but not everyone will have the same preference.
Next to the screen, there’s a coat hook. Other than that, there’s not much else to the window side of the seat.
The armrest on the aisle side is adjustable — you can switch between a lowered and a raised setting. On the window side, there’s an additional armrest that you can lift up. Both armrests are padded, not an uncomfortable plastic finish.
Right above the window-facing armrest is the seat control, which is easy to use unlike others. You could select from one of three pre-set options: upright for taxi, takeoff and landing; a slight recline; and full lie-flat position. Or, you could manually move one of three parts of the seat
Next to the seat, there’s a table and a personal storage area. Inside the storage area were the headphones and a mirror. I found the table to be perfectly big enough.
There's also a literature-only bin, where — you guessed it — literature is stored.
Overall, the cabin is spacious and comfortable. The high ceilings make for a open space, and the 1-2-1 configuration ensures the experience is enjoyable for everyone in the cabin.
Food and Beverage
Just after boarding, flight attendants came around the full cabin with a selection of departure beverages — water, Champagne or orange juice. I opted for a glass of Champagne. While the food was good, the highlight of meal service was its speed: within 80 minutes of takeoff, meal service was completed. The speed and attentiveness of the crew helped to make the service aspect of the flight memorable.
Meal service started with a drink and bag of mixed nuts. For drinks, the menu didn’t include any wine selection. So, when a flight attendant came around to take orders, I asked if there was any wine available. She asked red or white, and I told her white. She said that she would bring me her favorite white. While some might find this an haphazard and unprofessional approach to wine selection in a premium class, I really liked having someone pick a favorite for me. It ended up being an Israeli Chardonnay, and it was lovely. I ordered a second glass.
All business-class passengers got the same appetizers: sesame crusted seared tuna with daikon radish slaw and a fresh baby greens salad with olive oil lemon vinaigrette. Then, for the main meal, there were three choices: chicken cubes in a mango Thai red curry sauce, pad Thai noodles and edamame beans; pumpkin and chickpea stew with herbed couscous; or sweet chili glazed seared salmon fillet with basmati rice, sugar snap peas and pea tendrils. Meal service also included a choice from a bread basket.
I opted for the salmon, which was cooked properly although the rice and peas were rather plain and the salad pretty basic. I tried just a small bite of the tuna, and it was good.
To round out meal service, you could opt for dessert. I was given both a chocolate mousse puff pastry and fruit. The fruit was very fresh, and the couple of bites I had of the pastry were delicious.
Less than two hours before landing, which would be at 6:30am local time, the crew turned on the cabin lights and passed out menus for breakfast service.
Each meal was served with smoked salmon with cream cheese and olive tapenade, a classic Israeli vegetable salad and cottage cheese. Then, you could pick between a homestyle herb omelet or Muesli. I chose the Muesli, which featured plain yogurt, fresh fruit, cranberry pecan granola and honey. It was a great combination. However, my tray was missing some of the appetizers, and the presentation doesn't quite match the best international standards. I didn't complain, as I wasn't hungry.
Overall, I'd say that both meals were perfectly good. While it wasn't the best food I've had in the air, it was far from the worst.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
Upon boarding, each seat had a Salvatore Ferragamo amenity kit made of fabric. It wasn't the nicest, and contained all the usuals — a small dental care kit, lotion, eyeshade and earplugs. All very basic.
While we were taxiing to the EWR runway, a water cannon salute sent us off. It was a nice way to cap off the day’s festivities.
Not long after takeoff, flight attendants came around and distributed a commemorative note and pin of the Dreamliner.
And just before landing, the Dreamliner celebrations continued when flight attendants distributed peppermints in a 787-branded tin.
On board, there are eight lavatories. Inside, you can expect to find perfume, lotion and air freshener. They're pretty standard airplane lavatories, but with motion-activated flush system and sink. No need to touch potentially germ-infested surfaces.
I found the bedding to be very comfortable. I have a pet peeve when airline pillows are nothing more than a couple of cotton balls thrown together and labeled a "pillow." This one was nice and firm with a soft cover. The Hollandia-branded blanket was also comfortable, large and not too warm.
Above the table at each seat, there’s a small personal compartment and storage area. Inside are the noise cancelling headphones. They required a bit of self-assembly and weren’t the best quality.
At each seat, there’s a USB port and headphone jack located right above the table and next to the IFE's remote control. Here, they’re easily accessible. Below the seat, there’s also a power outlet. While a little bit harder to reach than the USB port next to the seat, it’s still a great feature to have.
The IFE system was stocked with tons of content, both new releases and classics. In the movie section, there were 142 choices. There were also flight tracking, seat-to-seat communication, TV options, and more. The IFE screen itself, as I mentioned earlier, is on a swivel and is a touchscreen. Whereas some touchscreens are hard to use, this was extremely responsive. There was also a remote control on a cord, which was also a touchscreen and extremely responsive. I felt the remote was almost as responsive and had as much functionality as my iPhone.
Unfortunately, for the launch of Dreamliner service, there was no Wi-Fi. A spokesman for the airline said that El Al will offer Wi-Fi service on its Dreamliner aircraft beginning January 1, 2018. The reason for the delay: security concerns.
My experience with the service on board was phenomenal. One flight attendant in particular, Este, went above and beyond to ensure I had a comfortable flight. After I woke up, she asked how my experience had been thus far and that the crew was curious what passengers thought about the new product. It's nice to hear that the crew cares about the product and, more importantly, how passengers are enjoying it.
Este went so far as to ask about my schedule in Israel. I explained that I was traveling alone and didn't really have much planned as of yet, and she made the time to write down some recommendations on a sheet of paper. I always think that the crew can either make or break a flight experience, and on this flight, it helped to make it all the better.
While the product may not yet be up to the highest international standards, El Al's new Dreamliner is a huge improvement over the airline's current widebodies. El Al's 747s, 777s and 767s have never been able to compete with others in the US-Israel market. Now, there's a new player in town for business-class flyers on this popular route. While it may be a bit pricey, redemptions are possible. As the carrier continues to roll out its Dreamliner fleet and begins to retire its old 747s and 767s, the future is certainly looking bright for the passenger experience on El Al.