It used to be said that the name El Al stood for "Every Landing Always Late," an image the company has been struggling to leave behind for years. It has not been "plane" sailing. The company faces the double hazards of stricter and more time-consuming security procedures than most other airlines and being the national carrier for a country which sees duty-free airport shopping as, well, a duty.
In recent years, the company has warned passengers that flights would not wait while those who had checked in got carried away checking out last-minute duty-free possibilities.
It has also come up with a slogan aimed at the domestic market that says it all: "Hachi babayit ba'olam" This is usually translated as "a home away from home" as the literal English translation - "The most at home in the world" - makes little sense to the non-Israeli but is "the most understandable in the world" to Hebrew speakers. For the US and the rest of the foreign market, the company succinctly sums up its philosophy with the motto: "It's not just an airline, it's Israel."
It was this message I kept in mind as I raced the clock to find the El Al check-in for a Tel Aviv-bound transfer flight at the surprisingly large Hong Kong International Airport recently. Suddenly, in the distance I saw the unmistakable sight of home: a queue which had nothing to do with the phrase lining up; passengers arguing with security staff and check-in personnel; some young kids being placated with Bamba; a few hassidim; backpackers returning from post-army trips in places where they went to get away from it all in such large numbers that Hebrew has become a local lingua franca; and a local star of screen and stage waiting with the rest of the crowd. In short, it was the down-to-earth Israel that is peculiarly (and sometimes annoyingly) us.
I had been in Taiwan, mixing business and much pleasure (a perk of journalists). In between meetings, sightseeing and evening meals with other writers from places as diverse as India, Sweden, New Zealand, Fiji and Oman - all of whom, incidentally, were taken by sur-prize at the Obama Nobel award - I had a little time to watch CNN and BBC. Broadcasts became a blur of international golf surreally interspersed with bombings in Iraq and/or Pakistan, typhoon and tsunami warnings and fancy commercials for airlines with a style of their own - utterly not ours. Finnair's fun ads, for example, stress arriving early; Qatar Airways places the emphasis on pampered luxury.
El Al is not the most comfortable airline. The staff on the long-haul flight home was obviously tired and had none of the grace of the Cathay Pacific stewardesses who served me on the flight from Taipei. But they knew how to answer passenger questions about whether a dish was dairy or parve - another sign of home after a week wielding chopsticks and requesting "Buddhist vegetarian" food.
I have a degree in Chinese, write in English but think in Hebrew. It was good to speak and hear the Holy Tongue again, share the yearning for a plate of humous and pita and listen to the completely uninhibited style of Israelis comparing the prices of their organized tours or private treks and trips.
Since the plane was equipped with individual screens, passengers could pick their own movies. I got a chance to view an Israeli film I had wanted to see for a while, the cute and quirky Sipur Gadol, known in English as A Matter of Size. The story centers around an overweight restaurant employee from working-class Ramle who stops fighting the fat and sets up an Israeli sumo wrestling team. I don't know what the latest in-flight entertainment is on Qatar Airways - and, traveling on an Israeli passport, I'm unlikely to find out in the near future - but you can bet its passengers aren't laughing in their aisle seats at a subtitled Hebrew-language movie, at once utterly Israeli and yet touching on universal emotions.
As the plane landed at Ben-Gurion Airport - known to locals as Natbag - some passengers clapped before switching on cellphones and collecting their duty free and baggage. It was time to argue with the Nesher taxi driver who seemed to have learned everything he knows about customer relations from a tank driver's manual.
When it comes to style and service, we obviously still have a long way to go, but we also have something to lose.
A couple of years ago, at passport control in Natbag the border policewoman carefully studied my face, then my photo and then my face again before declaring: "Long hair suits you better. You should keep it that way."
It's the sort of personal remark for which her counterparts around the world would probably be reprimanded if not dismissed, but let me tell you: It sounded far more genuine than the "Have a nice day" I routinely receive abroad.