When Mordechai Ben Ari, the CEO of El Al, Israel’s airline, was invited by Boeing in the mid-1960s, along with airline executives from around the world, to view the mock-up of the interior of company’s planned “Jumbo Jet,” he felt that he was being asked to peer into an imaginary world.
At the time he didn’t believe an aircraft designed to carry up to 500 passengers would be economically feasible or that it would ever be built. And he certainly did not imagine the small airline he managed would ever fly such behemoth.
But a few years later, he would make the decision to purchase new Boeing 747s and convinced his shareholders, the Israeli government, to approve what was at the time the biggest investment by any Israeli government-owned company.
El Al announced this week that one of its Boeing 747-400s, is being taken out of service.
Twenty-three years after the 4X-ELE Rishon Le’Tzion, first took to the skies — originally in the colors of Singapore Airlines (El Al bought the plane second—hand in 2008) — it is now headed for scrapyard. The jumbo jets were the first in El Al’s fleet to each be given names for a different Israeli city.
This is the second 747 El Al is taking out of service this year. Four more are still in service, flying mainly to North America, and the four remaining ones are scheduled to be phased out in 2018, replaced by the smaller, more fuel-efficient Boeing 787s. One 747 freighter will remain in service for cargo flights. But 48 years of passenger flights to Israel in jumbo jets will come to an end. No other airline currently flies the 747 to Israel and none is likely to in the future.
Along with El Al, most of the world’s airlines are phasing out these massive four-engined monarchs of the sky, in favor of cheaper, smaller and much more boring winged buses with two engines.
United Airlines ended its 747 flights last month and Delta flew its last jumbo jet a week ago. The icon of America’s aerospace industry is no longer flying passengers in any US-flag carrying airline. Passengers at Ben Gurion Airport will still catch an occasional glimpse of the Jumbo’s hump at the cargo terminal and there are still two derelict 747s by the runways, used for, among other things, training special-forces in hostage rescue situations. But 2018 will be the last year in which they can actually still fly one.
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The more pragmatic-minded will be glad to see the 747’s departure. In many ways, they were a nightmare to fly as a passenger. While some airlines configured their Jumbos in more comfortable layouts, El Al always seemed to be looking for ways to stuff more seats in to the economy class and never dig get around to fixing the entertainment consoles.
Landing in a 747 at Ben Gurion (especially if more than one of them was landing at the same time) usually meant an interminable wait for luggage as the baggage-handlers were swamped. Residents of the suburbs directly beneath the flight path will be relieved at not waking up every time the midnight flight to New York takes off, with its four massive rumbling engines. And secular passengers on long-haul flights may also sleep better in a plane less conducive to holding successive prayer minyans.
But more romantic travelers will miss the jumbo — that exhilarating feeling when those 400 tons of metal, fuel, humans and cargo finally, almost unbelievably, raises in to the air after lumbering down the runway for what seems like forever. And the knowledge that (unless you are a fighter-pilot or had the privilege of flying in the supersonic Concorde back in its day) you will never be moving as fast as a Boeing 747 can fly. The new Airbuses and Boeing Dreamliners may be more advanced, safe and friendly to the environment, but they will never be as majestic as the magnificent Jumbo. And the misshapen Airbus 380 “Super Jumbo” will never be as exciting. Unlike the 747, it has been a commercial flop.
And no aircraft in history revolutionized travel, or made the world smaller, for so many people like the 747.
For El Al, the decision to go ahead and purchase the first jumbo, when it had yet to enter service with any other airline, was seen as a daring move. But it was approved by the government in 1969, largely because there was a feeling in the newly expanded Israel, after the conquests of the 1967 Six-Day War, that a new era was coming. More Jews from around the world were interested in visiting Israel and though for most Israelis at the time, a trip abroad was still an unthinkable luxury, there was a feeling of greater prosperity down the road.
El Al had entered the jet age and began flying Boeing 707s in 1960, but the decision to double the capacity with the jumbo felt the right thing for a larger and more self-confident Israel. It was a major event at the time, the airline redesigned its logo for the arrival of the jumbo and a sign went up over its Tel Aviv headquarters with the number of days remaining to its arrival. Prime Minister Golda Meir and Transport Minister Shimon Peres took part in the arrival ceremony of the first aircraft on July 3, 1971.
Beyond its size, the 747 wasn’t that much of a technological innovation over the 707. Only when the more capable 747-200 entered service in 1973, could El Al inaugurate for the first time full non-stop services to New York (the flight from New York to Tel Aviv, at the time longest scheduled passenger flight in the world, had been non-stop since the early 1960s, but the strong winds flying west, meant that until the 747-200’s arrival, flights the other way had to make a stopover for refuelling).
Just like in other countries where it flew, El Al’s jumbos had a knack of playing their role in historic moments. Many reserve soldiers who were in the United States on Yom Kippur, October 1973, rushed to John F. Kennedy Airport, trying to get a seat on the first El Al Jumbo there, so they could join their units in battle. Even Benjamin Netanyahu, then a student at MIT, recorded his frustration at not getting on that first jumbo, in his book A Place Among the Nations. That was just one of many special flights chartered by the government, which included flights in aid of rescue operations in the wake of disasters around the world.
The most memorable flight will always be the one in which an El Al 747 broke the world record for the largest number of passengers ever to fly on one plane. On May 24, 1991, 1,088 people flew from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv, as part of the Operation Solomon airlift in which 14,400 Ethiopian Jews were evacuated from the war—torn country (actually, 1,087 boarded that flight, but a baby was born after take-off). It may have also been the fastest boarding of a jumbo in El Al’s history. It took only 40 minutes to load the plane and there was no need to call the names of stragglers still looking for last-minute bargains in the duty-free shops.
There were less proud moments, such as when El Al jumbo jets had to be painted in all-white schemes, for flights to countries where an Israeli jet could have arouse unwelcome attention. And there was the loss of Flight 1862, a 747 freighter which crashed after taking off from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on October 4, 1992, killing all four on board and 39 on the ground. The crash was followed by mysterious reports of men in white coats at the site and rumors of a dangerous cargo that had been on board.
In the mid-1990s, El Al replaced its early 747s with the newer 747-400s, but as they near the end of their service lives, the company has decided, like nearly all other airlines in the world, not to purchase the third generation 747-8 (which has been chosen by only three airlines for passenger services and is unlikely to remain in production) and instead downsize in favor of a more flexible and cheaper to operate 787s.
This makes perfect economic and environmental sense, but at least some of us who will be flying from Israel to the United States in 2018 will carefully choose their schedule, so we can one last chance to head off into the skies on this this truly historic aircraft.