An upgrade in Israel's ties to the Gulf

In historic first, Air India cleared for Israel flights over Saudi Arabia

Tickets go on sale for thrice-weekly flights, starting March 22 and expected to shave nearly 2 hours off journey; El Al demands approval as well

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

An Air India aircraft seen parked on the tarmac at Terminal 3 of Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India,  May 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
An Air India aircraft seen parked on the tarmac at Terminal 3 of Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India, May 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

Air India confirmed plans for a direct route between Tel Aviv and Delhi Wednesday, with the flight being given permission to fly over Saudi airspace, a first.

The ability to fly the route over Saudi Arabia is expected to cut the flight time by nearly two hours, and marks a significant achievement in Israel’s campaign to upgrade its ties with the Gulf.

An Air India spokesman confirmed that the new seven-hour service will begin on March 22 and will see three flights a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Tickets went on sale Wednesday.

The announcement comes days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters on Monday that the Saudis had given the go-ahead to Air India to fly through its airspace to and from Tel Aviv.

The permission marks a historic turn by the Gulf state, which has not previously allowed flights to or from Israel over its airspace, like many other Middle Eastern countries that do not have relations with Israel.

Israel does not have diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, but it has been a known secret that the two nations have been working covertly on their shared security concerns regarding Iran in the wake of the 2015 nuclear accord, which both governments’ strongly opposed.

Air India initially said after Netanyahu’s announcement that it was still awaiting formal permission for the flight.

Currently, El Al is the only airline offering direct flights from Israel to India, with a Tel Aviv-Mumbai route lasting around 8.5 hours.

In order to avoid Saudi Arabia, which has hitherto prohibited flights to and from Israel over its airspace, the plane must detour over the Red Sea and around the Arabian Peninsula, adding some two hours to the journey.

El Al recently turned to the International Civil Aviation Authority asking for its help in also getting permission to fly to India via Saudi airspace.

Saudi Arabia would violate UN-sanctioned regulations should it allow Indian planes to fly through its airspace en route to Israel without granting the same access to Israeli flight companies, the Bloomberg news site quoted El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin saying in a letter to ICAO president Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu.

If El Al had to continue its circuitous and costlier route to India, it would mean giving an “unfair advantage” to Air India.

The prime minister has acknowledged that the agreement could hurt El Al.

Netanyahu told business leaders while in India in January that an “efficient and direct route” between the countries was an important goal.

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