El Al seeking to fly over Saudi Arabia to India

CEO of Israel’s main airline requests help from international body, PM Netanyahu in accessing Saudi airspace; says Air India to start direct flights between countries next week

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

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)
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)

Israel’s largest airline has appealed to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), requesting the body’s help in obtaining permission to access Saudi Arabia’s airspace for a direct flight to India. Agreeing to overflights by the Israeli airline would mark a significant change of policy for the Arab state, which has never recognized Israel.

El Al newly appointed CEO Gonen Usishkin wrote a letter to Alexandre de Juniac, head of the trade association consisting of 278 airlines from 117 countries, asking to not be “discriminated” against compared with Indian airline Air India, Reuters reported Thursday.

The request came in response to reports last month that Saudi Arabia had okayed the use of its airspace for Air India flights between Israel and India, reports that were quickly denied by Saudi officials. However, the El Al chief said slot information from the Israel Airports Authority indicated those flight are slated to begin on March 6.

The approval of the use of Saudi airspace for either Air India or El Al, which would cut hours off the flight route between the two countries, would be a first and mark a major milestone in Israel’s attempts to deepen ties with Gulf Sunni states.

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)

“I am approaching you and kindly requesting IATA to intervene and to represent aviation industry’s interest by advocating equal overfly rights for all carriers over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and opposing any form of discrimination,” Usishkin wrote in the letter, sent on Wednesday, according to the report.

Usishkin asked Juniac to intervene and prevent “an uneven playing field,” the report added. He also wrote that he had appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for help in resolving the issue.

El Al is currently the only airline offering direct flights from Israel to India, with a Tel Aviv-Mumbai route. However, in order to avoid Saudi Arabia, which has until now forbidden flights to and from Israel over its airspace, the plane must detour over the Red Sea and around the Arabian peninsula, adding over two hours to the flight.

El Al hasn’t received a response to the letter, Reuters said.

The report comes as Israel has tried to build ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states allied with the US, which have a common enemy in Iran. However, Riyadh has remained skittish about openly admitting to contacts with Israel.

The direct flight proposal was a main topic on the agenda during Netanyahu’s visit to India in January. Speaking at an economic forum in Mumbai, Netanyahu said the goal was for a “efficient and direct route” to be established between the countries.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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