Air India gets Saudi nod to fly to Israel; El Al wants the same

NEW DELHI: Saudi Arabia has given Air India permission to fly between New Delhi and Tel Aviv over Saudi airspace, the airline’s spokesman told Reuters yesterday, ending a 70-year ban and marking a diplomatic shift. Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel and lifting the airspace ban would reflect what appears to be thawing ties between Israel and the kingdom. Both are US allies with a shared concern over Iranian influence in the region.

India and Israel have built close ties over the years away from the public eye, largely centered on arms purchases. But under Narendra Modi economic ties have flourished and last year he made a first-ever visit to Israel by an Indian prime minister. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited India last month, the first such trip in 15 years. Air India plans to operate flights three days a week, and the flight would save two hours of travel time as a result of flying over the Saudi airspace, an Air India spokesman said.

Netanyahu said on Monday that Saudi Arabia had granted Air India permission to fly over its territory on its new routes to and from Tel Aviv, but there was no confirmation from either Saudi Arabia or Air India. Saudi’s General Authority of Civil Aviation was not immediately available for comment yesterday. Air India’s website showed options to book flights to Tel Aviv from New Delhi starting March 22, with fares starting at 24,124 Indian rupees ($371.94).

The national carrier, which has also received approval from the country’s aviation regulator to fly to Israel over Saudi Arabia, would operate a 7 hour 5 minute flight between the two cities, its spokesman said. El Al Israel Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, flies four weekly flights to Mumbai but these take seven hours rather than five as they take a route south towards Ethiopia and then east to India, avoiding Saudi airspace.

Yesterday, El Al appealed to the United Nations over a bid to also reroute its services between Tel Aviv and India through Saudi Arabian airspace. The Israeli flag carrier’s CEO Gonen Usishkin said in a letter to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN body, it would be discriminatory for the Saudis to allow Air India to enter its airspace and not El Al. In his letter, Usishkin told ICAO head Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu that would give Air India “a significant and unfair advantage” over El Al that would clearly violate equality in aviation.

Usishkin said giving Air India preference would also violate the Chicago Convention, under which countries may not impose restrictions on flying over their territory or discriminate against airlines based on nationality. Israel, Saudi Arabia and India are parties to the convention. “I am requesting that the ICAO, which has the power to enforce the provisions of the Chicago Convention, take action …to procure equal permission for El Al to fly above Saudi Arabia,” Usishkin said. Last week, El Al sought help over the issue from industry lobby group the International Air Transport Association. – Reuters

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