After Report of Historic Approval, El Al Demands Israel Also Allow It to Fly Over Saudi Arabia

In a historic move, the Saudis are allowing Air India to fly over their airspace on the way to Israel, a move that shortens flight times and threatens El Al

An Israeli flag is seen on the first of Israel's El Al Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets, Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel August 23, 2017.
AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

El Al demanded on Wednesday that Israeli authorities will allow the airline to fly over Saudi airspace following reports that said the Saudis granted Air India approval to operate flights from New Delhi to Tel Aviv over its airspace.

>> In historic first, Saudi Arabia allows flights to Israel over its airspace

If true, this would be the first time the Saudis are allowing flights to Israel to use their airspace. According to Reuters, a Saudi official denied the report.

Following the reports, Michael Strausberger, El Al's recently appointed vice president for commercial and industry affairs, said he expects that the same approval would be given to Israeli airlines.

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Flight routes between India and Israel.

"We at El Al, and I assume that other Israeli airlines share our view, hope and believe that Saudi Arabia will also allow Israeli airlines, who fly from or to Israel – and not only foreign airlines – to fly over its territory," Strausberger said.

"It's clear that there is no difference between an Israeli passenger who flies in a plane that takes off or lands in Israel with a foreign airline or with an Israeli airline," he added, noting that no passenger or airline should be discriminated against.

Strausberger said that El Al has already asked Israeli authorities for such approval. "We approached the prime minister, the Civil Aviation Authority, the transportation minister and the Shin Bet and said that we expect equal opportunity among the carriers."

The new route over Saudi Arabia, which was granted to Air India, has a clear advantage, he stressed. "It will allow airlines to shorten flight durations and will reduce flight costs and as a result lower prices for passengers."

For seventy years now, Saudi airspace has been closed not only to Israeli aircraft, but to those of other nations with a flight-path to Israel. In recent decades there have only been two flights, that we know of, which have flown directly from Saudi Arabia to Israel: the U.S. Air Force One bearing Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, respectively. It is not rare to see on the air-travel tracking websites private business jets flying from Saudi airports and other destinations in the Arabian Gulf toward Israel. However all these flights make a short stop-over first in Amman airport.

A direct Air India flight through Saudi airspace will not only be a sign of the warming relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh, but also of the growing interests and influence of India's Prime Minister Nardendra Modi in the region. He visited Israel last month and is expected in Jordan and Ramallah next week.

Beyond the diplomatic implications, such direct flights will be a blow to Israel's flagship carrier El Al, which is not expected to receive at this point similar overflight privileges. Air India will now be able to operate a flight which will be at least three hours shorter and most likely significantly cheaper, than El Al's Mumbai service which has to make a long detour around the Arabian peninsula.

A direct Air India flight through Saudi airspace is not only a sign of the warming relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh, but also of the growing interests and influence of India's Prime Minister Nardendra Modi in the region. He visited Israel last month and is expected in Jordan and Ramallah next week.