After plane fracas, Netanyahu to fly to Rome on smaller airliner

National carrier El Al will still deliver PM, wife and staff, but they will travel on Boeing 737, rather than the larger 777 the premier had reportedly demanded

Illustrative: El Al planes are parked at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 10, 2020. (AP Photo/ Ariel Schalit/ File)
Illustrative: El Al planes are parked at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 10, 2020. (AP Photo/ Ariel Schalit/ File)

Israel’s national carrier, El Al, will fly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his entourage to Rome later this week, albeit on a smaller plane than the premier had originally demanded.

The premier is slated to fly to Italy for high-level meetings on Thursday, one of Netanyahu’s first trips abroad since retaking the premiership. The Prime Minister’s Office had arranged a Boeing 777 wide-body airliner to ferry the prime minister and his coterie, but no El Al pilot certified to fly the plane was able to fly the route.

Some reports had indicated that the difficulty in finding a crew to staff the flight was tied to the widespread public protests against the Netanyahu government’s planned overhaul of the judiciary. El Al denied that the issue of finding pilots was political in nature, instead blaming it on the 777 fleet’s crew not fully returning to service after being grounded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Netanyahu was said to be insisting on a 777, rather than the smaller 737 for the four-hour flight, as the larger plane has fully retractable first-class seats.

On Sunday night, an El Al spokesperson claimed that a crew had been found. But the Prime Minister’s Office, apparently incensed at the delays, announced anyway that it would re-open the tender to other carriers, a blow to El Al, which has flown Israeli leaders for decades.

The new tender, which included airlines Arkia and Israir, was for a Boeing 737, as those airlines do not use 777s. El Al eventually won that tender too. Channel 12 reported that it did so by proposing the rock-bottom, loss-inducing price of $22,000, a fraction of what is normally charged for chartering such a flight.

Netanyahu, his wife, and staff will now travel on an El Al 737.

For many years, Netanyahu has faced questions over his seeming preference for costly creature comforts while flying, such as having a special bed installed for a short trip to the UK several years ago. An airplane he commissioned for use by the state’s leaders, also a 777, was mothballed by the previous administration as a waste of money, but has since been revived by Netanyahu, though it is not yet operational.

El Al CEO Dina Ben Tal Ganancia said Sunday she would “not allow any boycotts of any kind, and certainly not against the prime minister of Israel.”

“It is a great honor for us to fly the prime minister on diplomatic missions. We have always done so and will continue to do so,” she added.

In Rome, the prime minister will meet with his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni, and return on Saturday night.

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