An El Al 767 at Zurich airport – Photo: Aero Icarus | Wikimedia Commons
Ask any self-respecting airline geek which airline was the first to introduce commercial trans-Atlantic twin-engine services, and you’d probably get an answer like TWA, American, or maybe Air Canada. The surprising answer? Plucky little El Al, the fiercely independent but resource-challenged national airline of Israel. How did that happen?
Never shy in taking on a new challenge, El Al has built a reputation on pioneering industry breakthroughs ’“ a non-stop distance record on the JFK-TLV proving flight with a Bristol Britannia in 1957 (5,760 miles). A trans-Atlantic speed record on the 707 JFK-LHR segment in 1970 (7 hours, 57 minutes). The ultimate ’œhigh passenger density’ 747-400 operation in which a staggering 1,122 Ethiopian refugees were safely (if not so comfortably) evacuated from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv in 1991. And a set of remarkable COVID repatriation flights in 2020.
In 1983, El Al took delivery of the first of four 767-200s from Boeing. The first two airplanes were the standard range models (4,270-mile range). The second two airframes were extended range (ER) variants, equipped with Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7R4E engines, enabling a range of 5,610 miles.
By 1984, the FAA was actively working with several operators to implement new overwater operational approvals for twin-engine operations ’“ what would become known as ETOPS- Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards. But the old rule ’“ that the flight had to stay within a 60-minute radius of a suitable landing site was still in effect.
It’s hard to wrap our heads around this today when we can fly 19 hours with up to 330 minutes ETOPS. But the notion of twin-engine oceanic operations was new stuff back then. A lot was unknown. An inflight engine shutdown would make the remaining engine work harder. Could it handle the stress? Could the one remaining generator or hydraulic pump reliably perform? And simply relying on the APU to cold-start at cruise or for the ram air turbine to properly deploy was not sufficient. Alternate airport requirements were more strict and a host of crew-training, equipage, and certification requirements made the very proposition of viable commercial ETOPS operations a daunting task.
What was clear was that the economics of twin-engine operations was quite compelling. The cost savings of operating a 767-200 with 190 passengers compared to a 370-seat 747 on a typical trans-Atlantic route was in the range of 45%. Fuel and crew costs (including the new two-person cockpit of the 767) accounted for the majority of the trip savings.
Having trialed its two ERs on shorter European runs from Tel Aviv, El Al was ready to exploit the 60-minute rule for commercial service from North America. On March 26, 1984, El Al became the first airline to offer commercial ETOPS flights, operating a 767-200ER (4X-EAC) from Montreal to Tel Aviv. The non-stop route, in compliance with the 60-minute rule, took 11 hours and 8 minutes.
El Al’s first ETOPS flight was from Tel Aviv to Montreal on March 26, 1984 – Image: Great Circle Mapper
Based on the early success of the Montreal route, El Al added more ETOPS flights the next year offering 767ER service on the following routes:
- Tel Aviv ’“ Amsterdam ’“ Chicago ’“ Los Angeles (LAX)
- Tel Aviv ’“ Amsterdam ’“ Montreal
- Tel Aviv — Amsterdam ’“ New York (JFK) ’“ Miami
El Al’s early transatlantic routes were groundbreaking – Image: Great Circle Mapper
Ultimately, the airline would achieve 120-minute ETOPS approval, allowing more flexible routings on the North Atlantic runs.
El Al’s achievement was groundbreaking ’“ both technologically and psychologically. There was a lot of resistance to the idea of twin-engine oceanic flights back then ’“ from the International Federation of Airline Pilots (IFALPA) to former FAA Administrator Lynn Helms. Ultimately, technology ’“ and economics ’“ would prevail.
TWA was quick to follow El Al’s ETOPS example – Photo: Ralf Manteufel | Wikimedia Commons
El Al’s exploits were closely monitored by other airlines, eager to cash in on the favorable twin-engine economics. TWA had ten 767s on order at the time, and was working with the FAA to secure 120-minute ETOPS authority, which would allow for more direct routings from its St. Louis hub. TWA launched trans-Atlantic ETOPS flights the following year on its Boston ’“ Paris route and would go on to build a network of 767 routes from St. Louis and New York (JFK) hubs. American and Air Canada were quick to follow. The floodgates were opening.
Air Canada quickly sought ETOPS certification for its 767s as well – Photo: Michel Gilliand | Wikimedia Commons
Today, the vast majority of flights across oceans are performed by twin-engine airplanes. Few were the visionaries who could foresee that development in the early 1980s, when the very notion of twins across the ocean was controversial. But the contemporary dominance of twin-engine intercontinental flight came about only through three decades of patient, deliberate development in commercial ETOPS operations ’“ punctuated by the bold exploits of a few early movers. So, next time you board a 787 for Frankfurt or A350 to Hong Kong, you might just tip your hat to that plucky airline from Israel that started it all.
Not gonna lie – it’d be great if El Al would do a heritage livery like this – Photo: Michel Gilliand | Wikimedia Commons
About the Author: Steve Jaffe is founder and editor of airlinestoisrael.com and author of Airspace Closure and Civil Aviation — a Strategic Resource for Airline Managers. His career has spanned all facets of commercial aviation, including marketing and consulting roles at Boeing, the FAA, US Airways, and AVITAS. He remains an avid avgeek (best plane ever — the 757) and is working on indoctrinating the next generation of geeks and geekettes.
An Air Atlanta Icelandic L-1011 (reg: TF-ABM), taken in August 1993, with a pretty familiar livery – Photo: Ken Fielding
I probably spend too much time looking at photos of classic airliners online. I am guessing that I am not alone. One of my favorites is finding an aircraft / airline combination that just doesn’t match or is an odd ball. Then down the AvGeek rabbit hole I go to learn as much as I can about the history of the airplane. When was it born? Which airlines flew it? How many times did it change hands? Was it involved in any accidents? Is it still flying today, stored in a desert somewhere, or has it been scrapped?
When I first saw the photo above, with the obvious old TWA livery with temporary titles, that looked like an airplane out of a bad movie, I became instantly hooked (or maybe “obsessed”). I wanted to get to know this plane.
I quickly found out that this Lockheed L-1011 was serial line number 1221, which I have to admit would be a pretty boring name. As I started learning more about him, I named him Martin (for obvious reasons). He was first delivered to TWA in December 1981 and had quite the adventurous life.
Follow me down the rabbit hole to learn more about Martin’s history and where he is today…
Is there a list of AvGeek wonders of the world? Probably not, but if there was, the new TWA Hotel at New York’s JFK International Airport was trying from the outset to make it onto the list. Initially I was worried that the project — build around the historic TWA Terminal at JFK — might be a victim of stratospheric expectations. But from the moment I walked into the historic gem of a building it was clear that the attraction was everything we all wanted it to be, and more.
Just like the beautifully restored Lockheed Constellation sitting on the premises, the TWA Hotel fires on all cylinders. It’s as much a museum as a hotel, with tons of exhibits about the jet age’s golden years. The staff is having a total blast, with 60’s-style uniforms to match. There’s even an infinity pool on the roof with an incredible view of the ramp and runways. I mean seriously, how can you beat all that??
If by this point you’re not itching to click the “Read More” button — and see all the photos and videos we took during our visit — we’re questioning your AvGeek credentials. Enjoy!
It’s been almost twenty years since TWA folded, but some of its employees still stay in touch. Every year, the Silver Wings organization of former TWA flight attendants hosts a get-together where they celebrate their shared history. The meetings usually rotate between U.S. cities, and this year there was only one logical choice: New York, thanks to the awesome new TWA Hotel that opened in May. If you’re one of the few AvGeeks out there who haven’t heard about it, the hotel is built around Eero Saarinen’s iconic TWA terminal at JFK and features historical displays, a rooftop pool with tarmac views, and more.
We got to join in for the Silver Wings meetup, and it was as awesome as we were hoping it would be. The turnout was incredible, and attendees were having a blast touring their old stomping grounds and seeing the old TWA terminal brought back to life.
Read on for a recap of the weekend and an insider look at the TWA Hotel, which — spoiler alert — is everything an AvGeek would want it to be.
Lockheed Constellation Mural in the TWA Room at 816 Hotel
It’s not often that we here at AirlineReporter review hotels. In fact, a property must be exceedingly special to attract our attention. Take, for example, prime PlaneSpotting properties like the AvGeek favorite Renaissance Concourse Hotel in Atlanta, or equally impressive Fairmont Vancouver Airport. And of course, who could forget the world’s only seven-star hotel, in Dubai.
But what about a lowly three-star former Holiday Inn Express turned independent hotel in Kansas City? What could they possibly offer of interest to a fiercely loyal major brand status holder and admitted hotel snob like me? A lot, it turns out. KC’s 816 Hotel (that’s our telephone area code for those not in the know) has done a lot to distinguish itself from the pack in appealing to folks from all walks of life. The property has over one hundred rooms, with twenty themed rooms. These unique rooms range from representing our various sports teams to our local newspapers to themes far off the beaten path: KC Mob or BBQ room, anyone? And while any of these might appeal to the general population, the gems that caught my eye were those dedicated to the Roasterie DC-3 and TWA.
I was lucky to score a night in the ever popular TWA room. Here are my thoughts’¦