Saudi Arabia allows flights to Israel over its airspace

Saudi Arabia has granted Air India approval to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv, sources in the Israeli flight industry told Haaretz. This is the first time the Saudis are allowing flights to Israel to use their airspace.

The approval means that the duration of flights from India to Israel will be shortened by two-and-a-half hours, compared to the route currently in use. The new route will allow the airline to reduce fuel costs and sell cheaper tickers to passengers.

Right now the only carrier that flies directly to India is El Al, which flies an 8-hour route from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Mumbai. The route crosses the Red Sea south of Yemen, then turns east to India. Since New Delhi is a new destination from which there are no flights to Israel, the aviation company will be getting a EUR 750,000 grant from the Tourism Ministry for operating the new line, according to a calculation of EUR 250,000 per weekly flight. This grant is, among other things, the impetus for Air India to launch the line.

This is not the first time Air India has asked for such approval. Last year, the airline sought the Israel Airports Authority’s approval for flights to and from Israel. It was not implemented, however, due to its insistence to operate the shorter route. Discussions on the matter evolved following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India last month, where intensive talks were held between the two countries in order to approve the flight route over Saudi Arabia.

Air India’s New Delhi – Tel Aviv route is the first concrete and public piece of evidence to the warming of ties between Israel and the Saudi leadership. Though we have known for years of quiet coordination on security issues, there has not yet been any tangible evidence above the surface.

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 United States 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 Israel and Saudi Arabia, 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, the 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.

Air India recently asked Israel’s Airports Authority for slots for departing flights, starting March 20. The airline is waiting for final approval before opening the flights for booking.

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