Opinion

El Al Flies in the Face of Public Interest by Attempting to Block New India Route

The airline long held a monopoly over flights to India. By trying to block these shorter, cheaper flights over Saudi airspace, El Al clearly doesn't have the Israeli consumer in mind

A billboard advertising India-Israel aviation diplomacy.
INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/אי־אף־?

On Wednesday El Al Airlines said it was petitioning the High Court of Justice, asking it to block any new flights to Israel via Saudi airspace until it can also use the shortened route. El Al almost certainly doesn’t have a case. On what legal grounds could it stop Air India from flying the Israel line, over Saudi Arabian airspace? The only sure thing is that El Al isn’t looking for the greater good of the consumer.

On March 22, an Air India passenger jet took off from New Delhi, flew over Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, and landed at 10 PM at Ben-Gurion International Airport. The flight took about five hours. El Al, flying between Ben-Gurion and Mumbai, has to take a more circuitous route and the flight takes about seven hours.

The airline is acting against consumer interests by trying to block these shorter, cheaper flights. El Al seems not to see the breakthrough achieved vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, in its finally agreeing to let the Israel line pass over its territory.

El Al’s fear is obvious. For years it had a monopoly over flying to India, and it has lost that status. Not just lost — but to a company offering a trip that’s two hours shorter and costs hundreds of dollars less. El Al will have to either lower the cost of its India tickets, or fly less frequently. It presently offers three to four flights a week.

The truth is, the India route isn’t a crash for El Al, at most a ding on the wing. But if other airlines get permission to fly between Asia and Israel over Saudi airspace, then flights to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Japan, and China, could all get shorter and cheaper — and Asian carriers presently ignoring Israel might start coming. That could be a real threat to El Al’s activity to the region, and El Al is right to be worried.

Blocking that is the main purpose of El Al’s petition. The airline claims Air India’s costs on the flight are 47% lower than its costs because of the route differences. In short, El Al hopes to thwart a trend.

But what does El Al claim? That equality of opportunity and fair competition are being impaired. The carrier quotes the civil Israel aviation authority, which called the shorter route an “extraordinary competitive advantage.”

It is certainly a competitive advantage; clearly too, there is no equality of opportunity between El Al and Air India. But what does fair competition actually mean?

Every company has its advantages and disadvantages. Air India has lower manpower costs because wages in India are significantly lower than in Israel. Does that constitute unfair competition? Or is that simply an economic reality that has to be dealt with? There are any number of situations in which this or that company would have an advantage. Making sure all companies operate under the same conditions is a recipe for stifling competition, innovation and progress.

It’s like ordering runners to stop and wait for the slowest person to catch up.

Israeli airlines know all about competitive advantage. They have at least one. El Al, Arkia and Israir get government subsidies for their security costs, for good reason, and the sums are enormous.

That subsidy is the government’s compensation to El Al for the sheer risk involved in being an Israeli airline. El Al for instance is equipped with an anti-missile system developed by the Israeli electronics company El-Op, after a missile was fired at an Arkia jet in 2002, in Mombasa. The system protects the plane during takeoff and landing. El Al has a lot of other safety and security systems that other carriers don’t have and most are subsidized by the Israeli taxpayer.

And now that long-suffering taxpayer has an opportunity to take a shorter, cheaper flight but El Al is being myopic. Instead of letting it happen, hoping the privilege will later be extended to Israeli airlines as well, it wants the court to block flights over Saudi Arabia in general. It’s also applying pressure to the government to apply pressure to Riyadh. It is dubious whether such public tactics will bring about another breakthrough enabling El Al to cross Saudi airspace as well, since any dialog between the nations is done in secret, not in court petitions.

The attempt to demand total equality between airlines is implausible. One may have advantages of lower manpower costs, another government subsidies of its outlay on security, a third may benefit from shorter flight paths. It would be wonderful if Saudi Arabia would allow Israeli carriers to fly over it too (some claim that Israeli planes flying along the narrow Red Sea straits already do that, to which Riyadh turns a blind eye). But even if that doesn’t happen any time soon, there is no reason to deny the Israeli consumer the opportunity of doing so with other airlines. And there is no reason to impede the State of Israel and Saudi Arabia in developing economic and aviation relations at their own pace.

El Al will simply have to deal with it, and make use of its own relative advantages, and it has them, to persuade Israelis to choose to take El Al, including to India and the Far East. Price and flight duration are important parameters, but in this business, so are psychology, a feeling of security and ace pilots.