As Israel fetes Air India flight over Saudi airspace, El Al cries foul

Top airline official fumes over ‘discrimination,’ says government granting foreign competitors an unfair advantage may spell economic hardship for Israel’s national carrier

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A Boeing 787 flight number AI139 of Indian national carrier Air India, from New Delhi, performs maneuvers on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, on March 22, 2018 after using Saudi airspace for the first time. (AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ)
A Boeing 787 flight number AI139 of Indian national carrier Air India, from New Delhi, performs maneuvers on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, on March 22, 2018 after using Saudi airspace for the first time. (AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ)

As Israel celebrates last week’s first-ever flight to cross over Saudi Arabia en route to Ben-Gurion Airport, El Al officials fumed over “discrimination” and demanded the government take urgent steps to correct a situation they say grants a foreign company an unfair advantage over the country’s national carrier.

“Our government must make sure that the competition is equal. If one airline can fly a certain route, then the other airlines deserve to be able to do the same,” Michael Strassburger, El Al’s vice president for commercial and industry affairs, told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

“We have unfair competition, and that is not something that will last,” he said, adding that the new status quo could cause El Al great economic damage.

On Thursday, Air India inaugurated its new Tel Aviv-New Delhi route amid great fanfare. Flight AI 139, which took off in India at 2:30 p.m., was first plane leaving from or headed toward Israel that flew over Saudi Arabia and Oman, two Arab states that have no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Advertisement in India for new Air India service to Israel, March 2018 (Havas Media, via GPO)

“This is a historic evening. The Israeli skies are connecting with the Saudi Arabian skies in one direct flight,” Transportation Minister Israel Katz said on Thursday, minutes after Air India’s Boeing 787 touched down at Ben Gurion Airport.

“We are celebrating the strengthening relations with India and the first civilian connection with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states,” he went on.

We welcome any competition — as long as it’s fair competition

“When we signed the Open Skies agreement with the EU [in 2013], we did not dare to dream about open skies over the Arab countries too. And now a historic Air India flight, which for the first time since the establishment of the state reached us on a route that passes through Saudi airspace, landed in Israel,” he gushed.

During Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the new Air India route as “historic.” The new service, which is significantly shorter — and thus cheaper — than all previous flights connecting Israel with India, “is significant economically, technologically, diplomatically and for tourism — significance of the highest order,” he said.

El Al’s Strassburger agreed that “history was made on Thursday,” but bitterly added that Israeli airlines must continue flying to and from the Far East on their set route, which includes a detour over the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean instead of flying over Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Michael Strassburger, vice president of commercial and industry affairs at El Al (Yonatan Blum)

“We have a lot of respect for what happened on Thursday. The idea of flights to or from Israel flying over Saudi Arabia is something that we welcome,” he stressed.

“We also welcome any competition — as long as it’s fair competition. Now this [current] situation is something that we condemn. Because it’s competition, but it’s not equal, and we’re not able to compete in the way that we should be able to.”

On Thursday, Tourism Ministry Yariv Levin revealed that also airlines from the Philippines and Singapore were looking into flights to and from Israel that would cross over Saudi Arabia.

El Al worries that more and more airlines will seek permits to fly over countries that Israel has no relations with en route to Israel. Its concern was not about India or Saudi Arabia but about the “principle of reciprocity and equality,” several El Al officials stressed in recent days.

“We’re not seeking any compensation. We’re not looking for any subsidies. We’re looking for one thing: to allow us to fight back,” Strassburger said. “Currently, we’re not in the position to do so.”

Air India planes park on the tarmac at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India, April 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

When news first emerged that Air India will be allowed to cross over Saudi Arabia on its way to and from Israel, El Al — which operates a weekly Tel Aviv-Mumbai flight — approached Netanyahu and Israel’s Civil Aviation Authority with the request to be granted similar privileges, to no avail.

In February, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin wrote to the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Alexandre de Juniac, asking him to “intervene and represent aviation industry’s interest by advocating equal overflight rights for all carriers over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and opposing any form of discrimination.”

I can’t think of any other situation where a government discriminates, or allows for the discrimination, of its national carrier

IATA officials wrote back recommending El Al take this issue up with its own government.

Indeed, Strassburger said he holds the Israeli government responsible for ensuring that El Al is not at an disadvantage.

“I can’t think of any other situation in any other country where a government discriminates, or allows for the discrimination, against its national carrier, or any other carrier based in that country,” he said.

Strassburger rejected the argument that the problem lies with Riyadh and not with Jerusalem. It could be argued that Saudi Arabia can explain allowing Air India to fly over its territory en route to Tel Aviv as a friendly gesture not to Israel but to New Delhi. Granting Israeli planes the same rights, however, might be a step the kingdom is unwilling to take.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said the deal to allow Air India to fly over Saudi Arabia has been in the works “for several years” and included behind-the-scenes efforts by several senior Israeli officials.

“You cannot expect me to ask for overflight rights from a country we don’t have any diplomatic ties with,” Strassburger said. “Our address is the Israeli government, and addressing them is exactly what we did. And the Israeli government made a decision that eventually led to the discrimination of El Al.”

It is the Israeli government that provides the regulatory framework allowing Israeli airlines to operate, he argued.

“We’re a private company, sure, but the reason we’re prevented from flying over Saudi Arabia is because we’re told not to fly over Saudi Arabia by our government. It’s not our decision to make this detour. We don’t have another option, it’s the only choice we have,” he said.

El Al planes at Ben-Gurion Airport (photo credit: Shay Levi/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of El Al planes at Ben-Gurion Airport (Shay Levi/Flash90)

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on El Al’s complaint.

Netanyahu heaped effusive praise on the Air India deal in his comments to the cabinet on Sunday. “The Israeli economy will develop in two ways — either with new products or in new markets. What we are doing here is breaking through to gigantic new markets and it is a very important change.”

He said he wanted to establish direct service from Tel Aviv to Mumbai, making the route a five-hour flight. El Al currently operates three to four weekly flights to the city. They last about eight hours.

For the time being, El Al is not planning any operational changes, Strassburger said, noting it was too early to say whether the new Air India service to Delhi made a dent in El Al’s business.

However, allowing its foreign competitors to shave off two hours from flights to Israel could “bring us to a very unstable situation. I cannot tell you right now the implications of that, but it could become very problematic for us.”

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