Air India makes first direct flight to Israel via Saudi airspace
The inaugural Air India flight from New Delhi, India, to Tel Aviv, Israel, made history when it flew over Saudi Arabia late on March 22, 2018, after the airline received permission to use Saudi airspace for the route earlier in the month, ending a 70-year-long overflight ban.
The Air India Flight 139 took off from New Delhi and was flying over Saudi Arabian airpsace at 16:45 GMT, according to Flightradar’s website. The Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) at 22:15 local time. The airliner had earlier passed over Oman, Flightradar marks.
This comes after Air India announced on March 7, 2018, that it had received the necessary approvals from Saudi officials to fly between New Delhi and Tel Aviv using the long-forbidden Saudi airspace, as Reuters reported at the time.
Speculations about a possible flyover ban lift started spreading in February 2018, when reports surfaced in the Israeli media that the Saudis had granted India’s flag carrier permission to use its airspace for the route.
The Saudi civil aviation authority immediately denied those reports and up until the lifting of the ban in March 2018, Air India’s spokesperson maintained that the airline had not “received any communication about it from the regulator.” The Saudis have not commented on any of the matters since.
The politics that block the skies
The issue is primarily geopolitical, as Saudi Arabia, including several other Arab and Muslim majority countries, does not recognize Israel. The Saudi government had banned flights en route to Israel from using its airspace for 70 years.
Of course, private jets could fly from Saudi and other Gulf airports to Israel, however, they could not use the direct route and had to make a stopover in Amman, Jordan, first.
The new Israel-India route was first announced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Israel in July 2017.
Meanwhile, in his reciprocal visit to India in January 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implied the route could pass over Saudi Arabia and would be a public indication of warming of ties with Israel, Aljazeera explains.
On the day of the first flight Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said in a radio interview: “This is a really historic day that follows two years of very, very intensive work,” New Delhi Television reports.
The Israeli Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz also called this “an historic moment”, saying that “For the first time, there has been an official connection between the State of Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Israeli business news Globes reports.
Many believe that the permission to allow Air India to use Saudi airspace for the route could reflect a thawing of relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab state, both being U.S. allies. But what it surely reflects is the strengthening of ties between India and Israel.
The New Delhi – Tel Aviv route
Saudi Arabia’s decision allowing Air India to use its airspace for flights from New Delhi to Tel Aviv reflects the “new image and reality” of India, Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu said, according to India’s The Economic Times. Prabhu also mentioned a plan is under formulation to promote smooth movement of cargo through the air route.
The new, direct route over Saudi Arabia will shorten the flights between New Delhi and Tel Aviv by two and a half hours as well as possibly reduce ticket prices.
Air India spokesman Pravin Bhatnagar said the airline will now start flying the route three times a week – the flight will operate every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, The Hindu Business Line writes.
According to Reuters, Levin said Singapore Airlines and another Southeast Asian airline were also exploring the possibility of introducing flights to and from Tel Aviv by overflying Saudi airspace.
Air India has said its flight would be two hours shorter than El Al Israel Airlines’ flight to Mumbai from Tel Aviv, which uses a route south towards Ethiopia and then east to India, avoiding Saudi airspace from which the nation is banned.
According to Israeli news agency Haaretz, El Al airlines also hopes to be allowed to fly through Saudi airspace, and has been vying for such permission despite the non-existent diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. El Al has reportedly asked international help to access the Saudi airspace.
Air India Airbus A320neo image: T. Laurent