El Al Files Court Challenge After Historic Flight to Israel Through Saudi Airspace

El Al claims that by permitting the Indian airline to fly the shorter route, which it's barred from, the Israeli government is improperly discrimination against it

FILE PHOTO: The first of Israel's El Al Airlines order of 16 Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets, lands at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, August 23, 2017.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

El Al Airlines said on Wednesday that it was filing a petition with High Court of Justice to restrict any new flights to Israel via Saudi airspace until it can also use the shortened route.

The suit comes just days after Air India began its Tel Aviv service as the first carrier to fly to Israel over Saudi Arabia. The route substantially shortens the flight times between India and Israel. Air India’s flights to Tel Aviv from New Delhi, in north-central India, take seven hours while El Al’s, which fly from Mumbai on India’s west coast, takes eight hours to reach Tel Aviv. As a result, El Al claims that Air India’s costs on its Israeli route are 47% less due to the shorter flight path. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the new flights as an important political victory for the country, but since Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, El Al is still not being permitted to fly over Saudi Arabia on its own Indian route, which flies to Mumbai.

Moreover, Israel’s flagship carrier is concerned that other airlines will now seek to enter the Israeli market, flying destinations in the Far East through Saudi airspace.

Chairman of El Al board, Eli Defes with the CEO, Gonen Ussishkin, at a press conference, March 28, 2018.
Sivan Farag

The suit asserts that claiming that the Israeli government had improperly discriminated against it by permitting Air India to operate a route between New Delhi and Tel Aviv that flies through Saudi airspace. “The state is prepared to abandon El Al,” CEO Gonen Ussishkin declared at a news conference on Wednesday. 

El Al flights must fly south around the Arabian Peninsula and approach Israel from the Gulf of Eilat. The situation it now faces is unique in the world, El Al claimed, with one airline permitted to fly a route from which another airline is barred.

The airline said it is not seeking financial compensation. Instead, El Al seeks “to restrict any further expansion of Air India or any other carrier overflying Saudia Arabia,” Usishkin told Reuters on the sidelines of a news conference. “We expect the Israeli government to provide any necessary means to grant us either those rights or the restrictions on further expansion.”

However, if the High Court ultimately issues an injunction, it could also include Air India’s flights, El Al officials said. El Al has also asked an airline industry lobby group, the International Air Transport Association, to help it access Saudi airspace. El Al’s CEO said IATA agreed this was a “violation of fair and equal rights” but added that it is up to the Israeli government to resolve the issue.

Last week, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said negotiations are under way for a Philippine airline and Singapore Airlines to begin service to Israel. Singapore Airlines told Reuters late last week that it is not currently considering services to Israel. A spokesperson for Philippine Airlines said the company was not in any talks to launch a flight.