The Travel Adviser: Why El Al's first-class offer has an edge over BA

British Airways, while also flying daily, only offers seating in first class on its afternoon flight, which departs at 4:40 p.m. and arrives at Heathrow at 8:00 p.m.

El Al 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
El Al 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A recent news headline quietly revealed the following: "British Airways announced plans to cut the travel agents' base commission fees from seven percent to zero as of January 1." El Al's reply was just as quick: "We will continue to pay travel agents, one of our most important partners, 7% commission." British Airways did try to mollify the Israeli Travel Agent Association, promising to charge a $50 service fee on top of the ticket to short-haul destinations and $100 for premium classes. Furthermore, on long haul flights beyond Europe to North America and the rest of the world, it will charge a $100 service fee to these destinations in economy class and $150 when flying in premium class. "Premium class" refers to business and first-class tickets. This makes this recent request from a Mr. Lipstein quite timely. "I've recently made aliya to Israel, but my main source of income will be from my work, located in London. To wit, I'll be flying from Tel Aviv to London once a month, and my clients are in agreement that I may fly first class as I'll be coming in for very short visits. "I have flown for over 30 years almost exclusively on British Airways and have found both their product and service to be on the highest level. However, I would like to review whether switching to El Al makes more sense. Can you advise me?" Not to make light of those lucky enough to fly first class, I took up the gauntlet. Let's start with the present timetable, though this is subject to change. El Al flies to London twice daily, once at 9:15 in the morning, arriving at Heathrow at 12:35 p.m. and an afternoon flight at 5:15 p.m., arriving at 8:50 p.m. Using either a Boeing 777 or a Boeing 747, they offer in first class two rows of six seats across on some planes, or two rows of four on others. Rarefied air, indeed! Their planes turn quickly around upon landing in London with two daily departures for the almost five-hour flight. The first flight from London leaves at 2:30 p.m. arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport at 9:10 p.m., while the night flight departs at 10:30 p.m. and lands the following morning at 5:20 a.m. British Airways, while also flying daily, only offers seating in first class on its afternoon flight, which departs at 4:40 p.m. and arrives at Heathrow at 8:00 p.m. On its beautiful, state-of-the-art Boeing 777, its offers four rows of seats, but with only four seats in a row. A solitary seat on each side, next to the window, is buffeted with two seats in the center. When flying solo, and preferring to work rather than chat (and sleep), this does work to BA's advantage. Its seats, moreover, have been rated higher in many surveys than El Al's. The only return flight offering first class departs London each morning at 8:50 a.m., landing in Tel Aviv at 3:35 p.m. The second daily flight from London is on a Boeing 767, which does not have a first-class compartment and departs at the identical time as El Al - 10.30 p.m. It's when we explore the prices that the difference becomes even more striking. El Al's first-class ticket, with all taxes included, comes to $3,100. British Airways' first class ticket, also with taxes included, comes to $4,267. Thus, BA's fare is over 37% more expensive! This is before its adds, from next month, its $100 service fee. We are not talking about a couple of hundred dollars here, but more than $1,100 more to fly with the British. It is very difficult to compare the two different products, even when flying similar aircraft. Judging the comfort of the seats or the gourmet qualities of the cuisine offered at 32,000 feet is a subjective matter, but BA must feel quite confident that it can price its product so much higher than its competitors' fares. I, however, have no such compunction. Mr. Lipstein, it would border on negligence on your part to show patronage to BA. The vast majority of us, while we do like to peek and see how the rich and famous live and fly, will most likely never have to make such a decision. On your behalf, I then elected to see if BA's pricing by snob appeal is less when brought down to economy class. Leaving aside the myriad offers that come out every so often, the least expensive BA fare in economy class to London comes to $724, with all the taxes included. Keeping in mind that airport taxes and fuel surcharges represent hundreds of dollars, this is a reasonable amount. No doubt, finding space in this lowest possible economy class is not always easy; $724 would seem "fair," though from next month it will go up by an additional $50 due to BA's service fee. This appears to be fair until one does a quick calculation on El Al's least expensive economy class. Saddled with the same fuel surcharges and airport taxes as BA, El Al's total fare with all the taxes comes to $544. Now I'm not sure what BA is serving in its cup of Earl Grey, but that is a huge difference. Still, for only 33% more than El Al, you too can fly on the same airline as the Queen of England. Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at