Nice flight, shame about the queues
THERE WAS a l ow purr of the engines and the blue Thomsonfly jet flashed a signature scarlet smile from its tailfin as it soared into aviation history earlier this month with the first low-cost, no-frills scheduled flight from Britain to Israel. A few minutes after it took off from Luton, its counterpart made the same journey from Manchester, though I was not there to witness the mid-flight davening, being among the Luton passengers sleeping off the early rise necessary to catch the 10.15 flight which arrives in time for beach-barflies to sip a sundowner overlooking the Med.
It was a quieter and altogether more low-key flight than your typical El Al voyage, carrying a mix of British and Israeli Jews, Jewish and non-Jewish business travellers and young city-breakers who had clearly leapt at the chance of hitting up an exotic new destination suddenly available at less than £160 return.
Those not prudent enough to book well ahead might have paid somewhat more and many will be paying more than twice the price over Chanucah. And all passengers had to fork out £5 per bag to check it into the hold, but to judge by the packed plane, all 189 passengers had been hooked by the lead-in fare of £139.98 return, which was offered in time to also lure great waves of Spurs supporters cheering on their team in Tel Aviv’s European Cup play-off on November 8.
Luton Airport, massively refurbished in the past few years and with a decent array of shops is a clean and compact joy compared to Heathrow and Gatwick, and although long delays at security have been known at this London outpost favoured by North Londoners and Midlanders alike, we breezed through in seconds at 9.15 on a Thursday morning.
We did have to walk downstairs to the plane — there are, as yet, no sky-ramps at Luton — but needed no bus, being parked near the gate, and only Air Traffic Control prevented an on-time departure; congestion over northern Europe pushed back take-off by 45 minutes, of which the pilot made up 15, given favourable tailwinds. A fair degree of comfort prevailed; there seemed to be plenty enough space in the overhead compartments, and more leg room than found in economy on some transatlantic services.
Thomsonfly’s seat pitch is 29 inches on the 737-800 that it flies out of Luton on Tuesdays and Thursdays, an inch less on the larger 757s used on Sundays and which also currently serve the Manchester route. Extra leg-room in the emergency exit rows is supposed t o be a v a i l a bl e for an additional charge, but confusion reigned on the return flight, when i t f a i l e d t o show up on the booking of passengers who had paid, and one 6’ 5” businessman who had failed to be able to book this facility on the website staged a sit-in.
Low-cost invariably means paying for food — though bringing your own smoked salmon bagel on board is always an option. It is not, however, a necessity, as Thomsonfly offers kosher meals by Hermolis for £12 apiece, if given eight days’ notice.
Frankly, it would be hard to improve on the delicious Thai green curry which is the vegetarian option on the outbound flight and costs half that (and needs only three days’ notice to book), though the vegetarian pasta on the return was not nearly as good.
Vegetarians also get the creditable tiramisu created by Aldo Zilli, the celeb chef who designs the regular meals, and a taster verified that the cheesefilled ravioli in rich tomato sauce — served with the char-grilled chicken breast — was quite delectable. Sandwiches and drinks were on sale before hot meals were delivered.
The only real complaint concerned an aspect of facilities which may be out of the airline’s control: three loos are apparently not quite enough for 189 passengers on a five-hour flight, as there was a queue throughout.
Arrival was a sheer delight — Thomsonfly may be low-cost, but it decants its passengers into the same glamorous Terminal 3 used by El Al at Ben-Gurion, where passport-checking and baggage retrieval were fast and efficient.
If only one could say all these good things about the return. The Israelis played their part, with the usual intensive interrogation. Despite that, passengers were boarded only 15 minutes late. But we sat on the plane a further hour before being told the delay was caused by the failure of ground staff to replenish the water tank. No hot drinks were available and there was no help for those of us who missed our last train home — a 9.15pm arrival will always be vulnerable in that respect.
B u t h e y , i t ’ s low cost, as the flight supervisor was r a t her t o o quick to point out.
And baggage did arrive within a few minutes of landing — a world away from Heathrow and Gatwick, and at £159.99 return — when you can get it — Thomsonfly’s Tel Aviv service, including the only direct option from Manchester, remains an offer any Israeophile will find hard to refuse.
A Thomsonfly plane at Luton, set to make aviation history with the first low-cost airline flight to Israel
The gleaming interior of Ben Gurion’s new terminal