BOSTON – Just a few miles south of where the Puritans built their New Jerusalem, the first nonstop commercial flight from New England to Israel took off Sunday night from Boston’s Logan International Airport.
More than 200 business and community leaders gathered at Logan for a pre-flight ceremony, during which Israel’s flag was hoisted to the ceiling of the international departures hall. Calling the new route’s opening “a true act of Zionism,” representatives of the Israeli government and El Al Israel Airlines noted that 600,000 Americans fly to the Jewish state each year.
Having edged out contenders like Chicago, Miami and San Francisco, Boston became El Al’s fourth North American gateway city with Sunday night’s maiden voyage to Tel Aviv. The route is the first of any airline since the signing of the 2010 US-Israel Open Skies agreement, designed to encourage more flights between the two countries.
Starting Monday night, three weekly nonstop flights will depart from Israel’s Ben-Gurion International airport and land in Boston before the morning rush hour. Return trips to Israel will also take place at night, allowing passengers to arrive in Israel mid-afternoon. Until this week, Bostonians flying to the Jewish state were forced to go through other cities, including the congested, time-consuming JFK airport in New York City, adding several hours of travel each way.
Up to 67,000 passengers flew from Boston to Israel last year, but not one of them on a nonstop commercial flight, according to the Massachusetts Port Authority, or Massport. If booked to capacity, El Al’s new flights could handle almost half of those fliers each year.
The airline is using its Boeing 767-300 aircraft for the new route, with each plane seating 218 passengers in three classes of service. So far, El Al’s Boston-Tel Aviv fares have been competitive with its New York-Tel Aviv route, with starting prices for roundtrips costing $1,399.
According to spokespeople at El Al and Massport, Boston was selected because of intense business relations between the area and Israel. As a secondary market, officials hope to expand tourism to both Israel and New England, whose six relatively small states are home to more than 300,000 Jews, most of them in Massachusetts.
“With the opening of this new nonstop route, it is expected that the New England region will become a popular vacation destination for Israelis,” said El Al president David Maimon, who called the route’s opening “a historic moment for El Al” during the ceremony.
Behind the scenes, leaders in Boston’s Jewish and business communities have worked to secure the route for more than a decade.
“Boston is a primary business hub between the US and Israel,” said David Goodtree, a board member of the New England-Israel Business Council, as well as a partner in OurCrowd, an Israeli venture capital firm tied to Boston-area companies.
For several years, Goodtree worked with Massachusetts officials and business leaders to ensure Boston would receive the coveted gateway designation. Since 2011, several high-profile business and trade missions helped Massachusetts leaders — including former governor Deval Patrick — become advocates for El Al setting up shop in Boston, fondly called the Hub of the Universe.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Goodtree said business ties between the Jewish state and Massachusetts were by far the leading factor in securing the flight. The New England-Israel Business Council commissioned a landmark 2013 study on the impact of Israel on the Massachusetts economy, demonstrating substantial and growing business ties between the regions.
“The Jewish community of Boston forms the base of travelers, but the biggest factor that attracted El Al is the business travel,” said Goodtree, who was on the inaugural flight out of Boston last night. “The extraordinarily strong and growing number of investments, acquisitions, and expansions are what tipped the scale,” he said.
According to the council’s whitepaper, the economic impact to Massachusetts of more than 200 Israeli-founded companies operating there reached $11.9 billion in 2012. In that same year, almost 7,000 state residents were employed by Israeli companies. Of the Israelis who opened companies in the state, one-third were alumni of Massachusetts colleges.
In addition to existing business connections, the new route will benefit from a codeshare agreement between El Al and JetBlue. With this arrangement, El Al passengers will be able to get single-ticket itineraries, luggage checked through from origin to destination, and other benefits on second-leg flights between Boston and dozens of JetBlue’s North American destinations.
Coinciding with the efforts of Goodtree and the local community, the powerful Massport has sought in recent years to make Boston “a gateway to the world.” The agency increased the number of nonstop international flights out of Boston, including new routes to Tokyo, Panama, Dubai, Istanbul and Beijing in the past two years.
In addition to research on economic benefits, the quest to bring El Al to Boston involved old-fashioned star power.
Since joining Massachusetts business leaders on a 2011 trade mission to Israel, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has steadily advanced the nonstop flight cause. Two weeks ago, Kraft was in Israel for a “Mission of Excellence” gathering of 19 pro-football Hall of Famers. And last week, the Patriots’ only current player with Jewish roots — wide receiver Julian Edelman — visited Israel with his sister in part to help promote the new route, on which the pair will be flying home this Thursday night.
From Super Bowl champions to the R&D mavens of Cambridge, it took a village to bring El Al to Boston, according to Goodtree.
“We were in competition with Miami, Chicago and San Francisco, and originally not in the top tier running,” said Goodtree, adding that some of the competing cities — notably Miami — have larger Jewish populations than Boston.
“Similar to how Boston secured the US Olympics [host city] nomination for 2024 against expectations, we hurdled over the competition, and the fastest route to North America from Israel is now through Boston,” said Goodtree.
Attributing the long-awaited launch to “a combination of business connections, the Jewish community, Massport, JetBlue, leadership from [former] governor Patrick, and persistence,” Goodtree said the JetBlue codeshare agreement could eventually help El Al expand to five round-trips each week.
“This flight is not just serving Boston, and we had to overcome the perception that this route would be for some little city,” said Goodtree. “The study on Massachusetts-Israel business relations helped us show we are more muscular than people think, but we just don’t brag as well as we could.”