Air India confirms its Israel flights over Saudi Arabia will start next week

Thrice-weekly flights starting March 22 will take seven hours, shaving nearly 2 hours off journey; El Al is demanding approval as well

Illustrative: Air India planes parked on the tarmac at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India, on May 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
Illustrative: Air India planes parked on the tarmac at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India, on May 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

NEW DELHI — State-run carrier Air India said Friday it will begin flights to and from Israel over Saudi airspace from next week, in a move that ends a decades-long Saudi ban on the use of its airspace for flights to Israel.

The new route is being launched at a time of growing ties between India and several Middle Eastern countries, and after Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at a diplomatic realignment in the region earlier this month.

“The Air India flights to Israel will start from March 22. The flights will take around seven hours and five minutes, and fly over… Saudi airspace,” airline spokesman Praveen Bhatnagar said.

The new service was first announced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last July, with Netanyahu then suggesting in January the route could pass over Saudi Arabia.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi as Netanyahu arrives in India on January 14, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Riyadh has no official ties with Tel Aviv, with Israel’s national carrier El Al forced to detour over the Red Sea on its India service to avoid Saudi and Iranian airspace.

Netanyahu told reporters in Washington earlier this month that Air India had reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia for the route.

The airline’s spokesman at the time confirmed the launch schedule for a thrice-a-week service from New Delhi to Tel Aviv but couldn’t confirm the exact route.

Common challenges

Flying over Saudi Arabia significantly shortens the flight time over the proposed route.

Riyadh has maintained public silence about suggestions the kingdom has covert relations with Israel, but Netanyahu said earlier this month in Washington that Israel and the Arab states have “never been closer.”

“Most of the states in our region know — they know very well, believe me — that Israel is not their enemy, but their indispensable ally in confronting our common challenges and seizing our common opportunities,” Netanyahu also said at a public event in the US capital.

Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel last year, and has pushed for investment, technology cooperation and closer defense ties between the two countries.

Saudi Arabia and its immediate neighborhood is also strategically important for India as the major source of the country’s energy imports.

The wider region also hosts millions of Indian migrant workers who send billions of dollars in remittances each year.

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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