El Al Gets a New President

At a breakfast here in New York yesterday,  Travel Agent had the opportunity to meet with Haim Romano, the outgoing president of El Al Israel Airlines, and Elyezer Shkedi, the new incoming president.

The last five years, Romano said, have been “very dramatic” for Israel and for tourism in the area. Between two wars (the Lebanon War of 2006 and the Gaza War this year), the economic crises and fuel price fluctuations, travel to Israel has been sorely tested.

But even in the face of these problems, Romano continued, El Al has managed to remain airborne. “El Al has performed better than our competitors,” he said, noting that small and medium independent airlines in Western Europe have been absorbed by larger conglomerates. El Al finished its most recent quarter with profits of $12.3 million (up nearly 30 percent over the same quarter last year), and is continuing to expand (four new 777 aircraft have been ordered, and new codeshares are in the works).

Another ongoing expansion is increased service to Latin America, including nonstop direct flights from Sao Paulo to Israel (a 14-hour flight). Brazil, Romano noted, is also a popular destination for Israelis, adding that Sao Paulo has one of the largest Jewish communities in Latin America. “Business is flourishing,” he said of the connection between the two communities.

Of course, there are other challenges facing El Al that would not affect other airlines. For example, El Al cannot fly over Saudi Arabia’s airspace, making some flights longer by two-and-a-half hours. But even in the heart of Middle East conflicts, El Al continues to serve its country and its people. The airline has been sent to rescue Israelis from combat zones, including last year’s Georgian/Russian crisis. While other airlines have removed flags from their livery, Romano notes, El Al still flies the Israeli flag on its tail.

Shkedi, a retired Major General who served as a Commander in the Israeli Air Force from 2004 to 2008, declined to speak at the breakfast, but Romano offered gentle and eloquent praise for his replacement: “This is a great decision, to appoint Mr. Shkedi to this position—not just for El Al, but for the whole nation…I’m sure he will find the right strategies like [he did] in the Air Force.”