Israeli airlines said prodding Saudis to already allow overflights this week

According to TV report, El Al and Arkia are asking to reroute flights to destinations in East Asia to shorten flight times, but haven’t heard back yet from Riyadh

Illustrative: An El Al flight takes off at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, October 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Illustrative: An El Al flight takes off at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, October 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israeli airlines have requested to use Saudi Arabia’s skies for their flights as soon as this week, after Riyadh said it would allow them to fly over Saudi territory, according to a report Saturday evening.

Channel 13 news reported that El Al and Arkia have both asked to reroute flights scheduled for this week to destinations in the Far East, such as Thailand’s Bangkok and India’s Goa, which would shorten flight times by up to three hours.

The report added that the airlines had not yet heard back from Riyadh.

On Friday, Saudi Arabia announced it was opening its airspace to all civilian overflights, in a move that had widely been regarded as part of US-brokered efforts to advance normalization steps between Jerusalem and Riyadh. The step happened while US President Joe Biden was visiting Israel, hours before he traveled to Jeddah and met Saudi leaders.

In a speech late Friday night after meeting Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Biden called the overflights decision by Riyadh “a big deal, not only symbolically but substantively.

“This is the first tangible step on the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations” between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Biden added.

On Friday morning, Prime Minister Yair Lapid welcomed the move “opening Saudi airspace to Israeli airlines” as “the first official step in normalization with Saudi Arabia.”

“I thank the Saudi leadership for the opening of Saudi airspace. This is only the first step,” Lapid added.

However, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said Saturday that the decision had “nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel.”

“The issue of overflights is a decision we took… in the interest [of] providing connectivity between countries in the world, and we hope that it will make some travelers’ lives easier. It’s not in any way a precursor to any further steps,” he said.

Flights to East Asia from Tel Aviv have had to circumvent the Arabian Peninsula, as a consequence of the kingdom’s non-recognition of Israel, adding between two to three hours of travel time.

Arkia CEO Oz Berlovitch has predicted that the shortened flight paths “will reduce the price of flights to the East, for example to India and Thailand, by at least 10 percent.”

Travelers boarding a plane from Israel to Bangkok will have their flights shortened to eight hours and 25 minutes from approximately 11 hours, while flights to Mumbai will be shortened from approximately eight hours to five hours and 15 minutes.

An El Al plane seen on a flight tracking website as it makes the first commercial flight between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, by crossing Saudi Arabian airspace, on August 31, 2020. (screen capture: FlightRadar24)

The new flight paths cross over Oman, a country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, and also does not currently allow Israeli aircraft to cross over its airspace. However, it is expected to follow suit in line with Saudi Arabia’s decision.

The opening of Saudi skies would also allow a 15-and-a-half-hour direct flight to Melbourne, Australia, as well as a six-hour flight to the Maldives, if airlines decide to operate such routes.

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