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(photo credit: Courtesy)
It still needs engines, passenger seating and a multi-million dollar layer of paint, but the airliner sitting on the Boeing factory floor earlier this month was already unmistakably an El Al jet. With its tail fin shining a glossy blue and white and signs inside the fuselage indicating exits in both Hebrew and English, it was clearly one of the 777s set to join the fleet of Israel's national carrier this summer.
But while this particular plane obviously had a ways to go on the assembly line - its lavatories, among other key components, were still encased in plastic wrap- the new jet already seemed to reflect the unique position of El Al in Israeli aviation, as well as changes currently being felt both in the Jewish State's tourism industry and in overall trends in Israel's economy.
One of two 777s set to join the El Al fleet over the coming months, the plane, to be named for the city of Sderot, will be joined by another 777, "Kiryat Shmona," later in the fall.
While the new jetliners pay patriotic homage to impoverished border communities regularly in the line of enemy fire, EL AL intends to use them to attract the increasingly important business and luxury tourism most benefiting cities in the center of the country.
Purchased at a combined cost of more than NIS 1 billion, the planes represent a key element of "El Al 2010," the airline's strategy for increasing its commercial competitiveness over the coming years, particularly among the type of well-heeled travelers and businesspeople sitting in the new planes' forward classes.
The acquisition of the new 777s marks a "peak in the renewal" of El Al's service offerings, said company CEO Haim Romano, and the planes will cater in particular to business travelers' needs, with state-of-the-art seat design, personal entertainment systems and lighting, which can be modified as never before to increase comfort for sleeping, reading and eating according to the phase of the flight.
The new planes, which will shuttle passengers to destinations in North America and East Asia, feature 12 first-class seats that fold out to 180 degrees and 36 business-class seats flattening to a near horizontal 170 degrees. (New ergonomic seats in the planes' rear section will provide "maximal comfort" to as many as 232 economy travelers, airline representatives say.) Like its rivals around the world, El Al has been forced to choose in recent years between increasingly divergent marketing strategies, says company official Amit Livni.
While budget carriers like Europe's Ryan Air and the USs' Southwest represent a purely price-based approach that views flights as a "commodity" to be offered with minimal service and at the lowest possible cost, El Al has adopted a different approach, Livni says - one that views each flight as an individualized "experience" that can create a distinctive reputation, and therefore customer loyalty, for the airline.
In line with this "experience" strategy, El Al has added and upgraded services in its first class and business sections in recent months, and will be retrofitting older planes in its long-range fleet to provide added passenger comfort. The first-class and business sections of its current 777 and 747 fleet will be refurbished to match the interiors of the new 777 aircraft, while beginning in 2011, new 787s are expected to replace the airline's 767s.
A recent tour of Boeing's Everett production plant and discussions with company officials demonstrated the extent to which the manufacturer has succeeded in isolating the design details that can affect - even subconsciously - passenger comfort on flights. Though they aren't always aware of how they respond, Boeing and El Al contend that passengers react more positively to the layout of the 777 as it allows an unobstructed view from all seats to the far side of the plane.
That design feature may figure most significantly, Boeing says, in coach seats, where tightly packed passengers tend to feel they have extra space simply because they can see more of the area in which they're sitting.
But though it welcomes increased satisfaction in its economy seating sections, El Al's management is pursuing higher revenues primarily through efforts focused elsewhere, seeking to give the airline its own distinctive style with additional luxuries for first-class and business passengers willing to pay a bit more.
The airline recently opened a new lounge at Paris's Charles De Gaulle Airport this year and will renovate lounges for business and first class travelers at New York's Kennedy and London's Heathrow Airports by the end of next year.
The company is also offering transportation-for-a-fee to and from the airports it serves, and earlier this spring unveiled an early check-in service that allows customers to check luggage and undergo a partial security check at home or in the office hours before their flights.
In addition to creating new booking features and adding languages to its Web site, El Al has made sure that, once on board, passengers in all seating sections can enjoy the airline's newly upgraded menu, the result of deals with compatriot partners that give El Al meals an unmistakably Israeli flavor. With wines from Israeli vineyards and dairy products from Tnuva and Strauss, the airline is surely one of the few serving tehina, labane cheese and grilled eggplant on flights originating in North America and the Far East.
El Al's strategy for maintaining and expanding its customer base in the coming years can clearly be seen in the changes the airline is currently undertaking, and while cheaper fares can probably be found elsewhere, when it comes to luxury, security and overall "Israeliness," El Al is gambling on the idea that added comfort and a unique brand identity are more important than cost, offering passengers a travel experience all the airline's own.