El Al expands S.F. service through deal with Delta

Life in Israel may not be getting any easier, but getting there is.

After summertime offers in 1996 and '97, El Al discontinued direct flights from San Francisco to Tel Aviv. Yet the airline recently made a deal officials feel will give Bay Area visitors to Israel the most seamless option since.

Earlier this year, El Al cemented a "code-sharing" partnership with Delta Airlines. San Francisco travelers will take a Delta flight to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and then board an El Al jet bound for Tel Aviv. Yet under the code-sharing agreement, the trip shows up in travel agents' computers as being a single El Al flight from San Francisco to Tel Aviv.

"We've just moved into the brand-new international terminal No. 4 at JFK, and we're directly adjacent to the Delta terminal. You literally step off the Delta flight and there's an El Al flight waiting," said Bill Gale, El Al's West Coast regional manager. "What makes this a big development is it gives us a one-stop service from cities like San Francisco."

Gale, El Al's first non-Israeli regional manager, predicted the code-sharing agreement could save local El Al passengers hundreds of dollars.

While El Al's San Francisco passengers used to have to obtain flights to the "gateway cities" of Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, New York or Miami on other airlines, Gale said the agreement allows El Al to offer package fares.

"We buy the seats on the Delta flights to New York, so those are our seats that we own, even though the plane is operated by Delta Airlines," he said. "Because we're technically flying all the way from San Francisco, we can offer promotional types of fares. It's a time-saver and it's more economically attractive as well."

Gale said a round-trip fare from San Francisco to Tel Aviv on El Al could run as low as $999, a savings of $400 over the regular price. The arrangement allows for one code-shared San Francisco to Tel Aviv flight a day, every day but Friday.

The regional manager hopes the agreement will drum up business for the beleaguered airline.

"If you go into a travel agency and say, 'Gee, I want to go to Israel,' when they punch it into the computer, the first thing that will come up is 'El Al, San Francisco to Tel Aviv,' with a footnote that there's a change of airplanes in New York," he said. In terms of the marketing advantage, "we show ourselves as a direct flight, which is much better than a connecting or combination of flights. And a big selling point is our ability to price it ourselves."

Gale said that, with some luck, the code-sharing agreement may be the first step in re-establishing direct service to Israel from San Francisco International Airport. There are major obstacles in the way, however.

"In order to create a market presence, you need to have almost daily flights [to a particular destination]. I don't think our resources could stretch for that," said the Los Angeles-based regional manager. "We're a fairly small airline. San Francisco is a United-dominated market," making it difficult for smaller airlines to get a good position in area airports.

Any additional business the code-sharing agreement brings in will be most welcome. Israeli tourism is reeling in the wake of nearly nine months of violence, and El Al is feeling the pinch. Gale said business from California is "better than one would imagine," but it is still down 20 percent.

Although the large number of Israelis living in California and a spate of solidarity missions have helped, it's been a long, cold winter for El Al.

"To be frank, we lost the core of our business during the winter months, which is Christians on pilgrimages," said Gale.

Gale is also dealing with the cancellations of three Bay Area Israel tours, a loss of roughly 425 passengers. A group of high-schoolers was scheduled to depart San Francisco on Wednesday.

"They were going to occupy an entire aircraft. Now we need to find new buyers, and since it's a long-distance, international destination, that's very difficult," he said.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.