KosherJava Powers Zmanim on El Al Flights


In an earlier Inflight Zmanim Calculations – Why So Complex? post, I outlined the complexity of calculating zmanim for flights. Back in Aug 2022, Dan’s Deals posted the exciting news that Zmanim were added to El Al’s flight entertainment system. This had not been formally announced by El Al at the time since the app was really in an (unannounced) alpha/beta testing phase. A careful examination of the screenshots by members of the #zmanim channel in the Frum Software Developers Slack, showed that it was powered by the KosherJava zmanim library. It should not have been surprising that it was found and used without my knowledge, since it is a free, well documented and easy to use open source library. After a number of issues with the zmanim app were reported to me (I want to thank all of those who took the time to track me down to report the issues), Rabbi Dovid Heber reached out to El Al, and Tal Kalderon, the head of El Al’s Inflight entertainment & Connectivity team reached out to me for assistance. This lead to meetings with Boris Veksler the CEO of FlightPath3D who integrated the KosherJava zmanim code into their flight maps as an optional module that El Al is using.

The FlightPath3D in-flight mapping app on El Al with the zmanim app Magen Dovid icon on the bottom left
Boris made it a personal mission to perfect the product and a series of fixes were deployed until the final release of the Prayer Room / Mesivta Derakia app was deployed on El Al aircraft on 5 Feb, 2023. At this point, the app started displaying accurate zmanim. Boris and the FlightPath3D team put a lot of effort into perfecting it into an easy-to-use app. To ease understanding of zmanim on flights that cross time zones, the app shows countdown times to the upcoming zmanim.
The El Al Zmanim app showing the default current aircraft location zmanim
For example, El Al flight LY 26 from New York to Israel departing at 9pm will show a countdown to chatzos/midnight, alos hashachar (two variants) and later zmanim (such as misheyakir, sunrise, etc.), displaying a countdown, with the number of hours and minutes to upcoming zmanim. Zmanim are calculated based on the plane’s current location, speed and the flight path. Since headwinds and tailwinds (as well as in-flight route changes) can significantly change the time that zmanim will be reached, the times to the upcoming zmanim are recalculated multiple times a minute. This significantly reduces the challenge to passengers, since precalculated zmanim do not come close to real time calculations on the flight. The app also shows a compass with the bearing to Yerushalayim / Jerusalem (map). The FAQ that is part of the zmanim app on the aircraft appears in a hyperlinked version at El Al In-Flight Zmanim FAQ on this site. The app defaults to the Aircraft location but can be changed to show zmanim for multiple international cities
The El Al zmanim app displaying zmanim for New York
, displayed in the time and time zone of those cities. The app works in both English and Hebrew, based on the language selected in the flight entertainment system. A thank you goes to R’ Chaim Keller of the indispensable Chai Tables project for allowing the development team access his flight path algorithms. The FAQ would not have been possible without help of translators and copy-editors.
The El Al Zmanim app in Hebrew
A special thanks to Effie Freiner from Lakewood for the Hebrew translation (the “Yeshivish” Hebrew posed its own set of challenges), and to my wife and Dovid Nachfolger for clarifying the language and grammar in the English FAQ.
I spent time with Rabbi Dovid Heber, Rabbi Dovid Braunfeld, Rabbi Yisroel Harfenes and Reb Solly Tropper reviewing the various complexities of calculating in-flight zmanim before the app left the βeta stage and went live.

Developing Software for Aircraft

Developing apps for use on an airliner has a series of challenges, in particular for in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems. It is a complex process that requires a deep understanding of the aviation industry and the systems onboard the aircraft.

First, the hardware hosting the apps goes through stringent safety certifications and has to pass a series of requirements. These include being isolated from any cabin and aircraft controls. The most they can do is access the flight management system (FMS) in read-only mode, with no ability to push data to the FMS. These certifications are done for each aircraft configuration and can take a year or more to complete.

Software and the associated apps also follow similar certification processes. The software must be designed to work seamlessly with any IFE systems already in place on the aircraft. Thus, it has to adapt to new and older hardware and operating systems and understand and adapt to idiosyncrasies in the data provided by the FMS. FlightPath3D is a leading provider of interactive mapping software for IFE systems. This type of software provides passengers with real-time information about their flight’s location, altitude, and speed, as well as other relevant data such as the estimated time of arrival and the distance to the destination. This made FlightPath3D a natural vendor for the zmanim work. FlightPath3D has a wealth of experience in developing high-quality software solutions that meet the needs of airlines and passengers and adapt to the particular hardware installed onboard.

לז״נ אבי מורי הרב יצחק אריה בן ר׳ ברוך הירשפלד ז״ל. נפ׳ י׳ אדר ב׳ תשפ״ב.
In memory of my father R’ Yitzchok Hershfeld (Montreal).

לז״נ חמי ר׳ שרגא פייבל בן ר׳ שלמה יהודה מילר ז״ל. נפ׳ ט״ו אייר תשפ״ג
In memory of my father-in-law R’ Feivel Muller (Brooklyn / Lakewood).

Inflight Zmanim Calculations – Why So Complex?

Airline ZmanimDetermining zmanim times while on an airline flight is rather complex compared to calculating it for a fixed location. Some of the complexity involves:

  • Where you are currently located
  • Your Speed
  • Direction of travel / flightpath

The above 3 variables impact the calculation of what the zmanim are in your current location and where you will likely be when various zmanim are met.

Surprisingly, the hardest part is figuring out your current location. The shortest point between 2 points on the globe is the great circle route. Though it is the shortest path, airliners rarely fly this way. To take advantage of prevailing winds such as the Gulf Stream, or to avoid bad weather, airlines often fly much longer routes and as a passenger you often do not know exactly where you are.
Yes, the airline shows you a nice location map, but getting your exact coordinates from the map is not something that they usually supply. From a practical perspective, many people on domestic and short international flights will manage to figure out davening times by themselves. As a general rule of thumb, it is time for Shacharis when the sun rises and time for Maariv when it gets dark. Please keep in mind that most poskim are of the opinion that we use zmanim at sea level elevation, or ground level, and not the 37,000 foot elevation of the flight. This elevation results in a difference of approximately 20 minutes in sunrise and sunset times. Not sure when Mincha time is? Wait until shortly before sunset. Just keep in mind that when flying due east (such as a flight from NY to Israel), you are flying in the opposite direction as the sun and the time for davening is compressed. While you may expect sof zman krias shema to be 1/4 of the way into the day, in this case the davening window is compressed into a much shorter time. The real complexity is in flights that cross the halachic dateline, polar flights and to a lesser degree, cross-Atlantic and Pacific flights. This article will not delve into the halacha of in-flight zmanim, but solely on the technical aspects of figuring out the zmanim times.

GPS

Using your phone’s GPS to identify your in-flight location, or even a standalone GPS device will usually not work once you are away from cell towers (where your GPS no longer has the assistance of A-GPS). GPS signals are very weak and your GPS receiver typically does not have an antenna strong enough to pick up the signals in an aluminum or even newer carbon fiber composite airplane like the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787. To receive a signal, an external GPS receiver is usually required and assuming that you can get a signal (it helps if the external receiver is placed by a window), we can proceed. Note that while you would expect that the CFRP body of a Boeing 787 would allow for a much stronger signal than aluminum airliners, the graphite (and probably other materials) in the 787 and A350, CFRP in conjunction with the electrochromic windows on the 787, completely block GPS signals. In addition, to protect from lightning strikes, the A350 has a metal mesh embedded in the CFRP that further reduces the signal penetrating into the aircraft body. It is this shielding as opposed to GPS jamming that blocks signals on El-Al (and other airlines) 787s and A350s. In my testing with an external GPS device designed for aviation such as the Dual XGPS 160, the composite A350 and 787 both do not allow enough GPS signal through for a GPS receiver to provide a location fix. It may be surprising that it is easier to receive the weak GPS signal in an aluminum fuselage than a composite one, but keep in mind that carbon fiber is an excellent electrical conductor. Carbon fiber was used as the filament in Thomas Edison’s early light bulbs and does not let RF signals through and effectively acts as a Faraday cage. If you are able to receive a GPS signal, you can accurately calculate zmanim for your current location using tools such as the KosherJava zmanim map. Just change the latitude and longitude to what you see in your GPS in the URL https://kosherjava.com/maps/zmanim3.html?lat=75.74&lng=-63.22&zoom=3. While not an ideal solution, it does work. The same works for the rare airlines whose maps do show accurate GPS coordinates. Please note that Wi-Fi based geolocation will not work on your flight (in my testing it gave the location of the service provider headquarters).

Precalculated Flight Paths

Another way to figure out where you are located when in the air is via a precalculated flight path. This allows programs such as the Chai Tables Chai Air Times program for Windows and Android to work. However, they just calculate a great circle route between the origination and destination locations, something that is not very accurate. Currently MyZmanim’s Inflight charts are the most practical. These charts calculate the average path of the 5 previous flights in an attempt to better estimate your flight path and provide precalculated charts based on the time you take off. Since it is just an estimate, the charts provide a relatively large window of time where zmanim may happen. This is painful and causes a lot of confusion and uncertainty, but is probably unavoidable. While this solution is currently the best that I am aware of, there are a number of issues with it. For one, much of the flight path over the oceans and Arctic that are provided by services such as FlightAware and others (that are used by MyZmanim) are just educated guesses for cross oceanic or Polar flights, since there are no ADS-B receivers in much of this area. As a matter of fact, this terrestrial ADS-B receiver-free area comprises 75% of the globe. Even if the previous flight paths were accurate, your current flight may be very different. Flights such as the Cathay Pacific flights from the NY area to Hong Kong fly either east or west depending on wind conditions. MyZmanim deals with this scenario by providing both east and west maps (based on the in-flight map you would use one or the other) and indicating the portion of a flight-path that is unknown, but this is a warning that does nothing to help you accurately calculate zmanim.

ADS-B Receivers

Every airliner broadcasts its position, heading, altitude and speed using ADS-B. A technical user can bring an ADS-B-receiver with him on the flight and use it to retrieve the current information on his flight. This would work even when there are no ground based ADS-B receivers. This is something costly and beyond the technical ability of the vast majority of flyers.

The future

Due to issues in tracking flights that came to light with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, satellite based ADS-B tracking is rolling out and will be mandated. This will make it much easier for services such as MyZmanim to provide more accurate pre-flight estimates, since services such as Flight-Aware will be able to provide more exact historical flight paths. For users who do have in-flight Wi-Fi, services such as FlightAware will be able to provide almost real time location (note that many services have a 5 minute delay and are not really real-time), allowing future Wi-Fi connected zmanim apps to tap into this and provide accurate zmanim.