News: Israeli airline to fly on Sabbath

Israel's national airline may soon be able to fly on the Sabbath, freeing it to increase services to and from Britain and to cut its costs dramatically. In 1982 the Israeli government ordered El Al to ground its planes between sunset on a Friday and sunset the following Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath). No aircraft are allowed to take off, land or be airborne.

Israel's national airline may soon be able to fly on the Sabbath, freeing it to increase services to and from Britain and to cut its costs dramatically. In 1982 the Israeli government ordered El Al to ground its planes between sunset on a Friday and sunset the following Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath). No aircraft are allowed to take off, land or be airborne.

The ban was imposed to satisfy Israel's ultra-Orthodox political parties and secure their support on other matters. But in an industry where efficient use of aircraft and crews is essential, it has crippled El Al's ability to compete effectively.

It also makes life complicated for travellers. For example, the Friday morning flight from Tel Aviv to Stansted departs at 5am, in order for the aircraft to be back in Israel by 4.25pm, allowing some leeway in case of delays before sunset on Friday. This pattern is repeated across the airline's network. Analysts have estimated that the ban on Sabbath flights costs El Al between £20m and £50m each year.

El Al was established in the same year that Israel gained independence, 1948, with the Israeli government holding an 80 per cent share. But the airline is on the verge of being privatised. Knafaim-Arkia Holdings, the parent company of El Al's main Israeli competitor, Arkia, is to become the majority shareholder of the airline.

With El Al in private hands, the airline will no longer be bound by the prohibition. A spokesman for El Al said that no decisions had yet been made to reintroduce Sabbath flights. But if the new owners decide to remove the restriction, British travellers could benefit with increased flights and lower fares. El Al currently flies from Heathrow and Stansted to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, with winter services to Eilat on Israel's Red Sea coast.

El Al: 020-7957 4100; www.elal.co.il

* The Foreign Office has stopped short of warning against holiday travel to Israel, but its advice for visitors to the main tourist destination, Jerusalem, is strongly worded: "There have been frequent major terrorist attacks in a variety of locations around the city. These incidents have also been in areas frequented by tourists. Foreign nationals have not been targeted, but many have been killed and injured."

The Foreign Office advises travellers "to maintain a high level of vigilance when travelling anywhere in Jerusalem". It also warns visitors to "take extra care at crossing points between Israel and Jordan".

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