Air India Will Use Saudi Arabian Airspace For New Flight To Tel Aviv

Filed Under: Air India

This is a big step for Israel & Saudi Arabia. Israel doesn’t have great relations with many of their neighbors, and this has implications for flights to & from Israel. Several countries don’t give flights to & from Israel the right to fly over their airspace, which can mean that flights end up being hours longer than they’d otherwise be.

Just to give one example, EL AL flies between Tel Aviv and Mumbai, and even though the direct distance between the two airports is only ~2,500 miles, the flight is blocked at around eight hours in each direction. That’s because from Israel the flight has to fly South down the Red Sea, and then turn East near Yemen, so that it skips most of the peninsula.

Historically this restriction has applied to all flights to & from Israel. In the past few decades, the only two flights direct from Saudi Arabia to Israel have been on Air Force One, with the US president onboard.

So there’s a pretty big development on this front. Air India will be launching 3x weekly Boeing 787 flights between Delhi and Tel Aviv starting in March, and Saudi Arabia is granting them rights to use their airspace for this service, which will shave a couple of hours off the flight time.

Some suggest that this is a sign of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia warming up. That’s certainly one way to look at it, though at the same time some might view it as a slap in the face to grant this permission to a foreign airline flying to Israel, but not to an Israeli airline. After all, this puts Israel’s flag carrier, EL AL, at a disadvantage. Per Haaretz:

Following the reports, Michael Strausberger, El Al’s recently appointed vice president for commercial and industry affairs, said he expects that the same approval would be given to Israeli airlines.

“We at El Al, and I assume that other Israeli airlines share our view, hope and believe that Saudi Arabia will also allow Israeli airlines, who fly from or to Israel – and not only foreign airlines – to fly over its territory,” Strausberger said.

I’d say EL AL is being a bit optimistic here. Air India wanted to launch this route last year, though ended up not following through with it because they wanted the shorter routing. Apparently discussions on this occurred when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited India last month. What’s more surprising is that they managed to get Saudi Arabia’s approval for this.

For now we’ll have to mark this as “developing,” and see if this signifies the start of a similar policy being implemented for other flights to & from Israel, or if this is being granted as a one-off to Air India. If this is just a one-off, I’d personally view this as more of a slap in the face to EL AL & Israel than a sign of relations warming up.

What do you make of Saudi Arabia opening their airspace to Air India’s Tel Aviv flight?

Update: Now Saudi Arabia is claiming that they didn’t give Air India this authority.

(Tip of the hat to @Roar_Singh)

  1. Looking at the flight map you’ve posted it looks like Air India would barely have to enter Saudi airspace on this route – maybe this is a reason it was granted?

  2. I don’t hold an Israeli passport but if I did, then I’d avoid that flight. One reason why EL AL is flying around is that in case the flight has to divert, many passengers would be unable to even leave their airplane.

    FWIW a warming of relations would be Saudi Arabia allowing Israelis to transit and vice versa. Throughly news braking would be the lifting of immigration restrictions.

  3. @ Raj — That map just shows the direct air distance, though that’s nowhere close to the route that Air India could take. That’s because the direct route would take Air India over Iran and Iraq, and that’s not allowed. So the alternative would be for Air India to fly all the way around the peninsula.

  4. @Raj – The GC Map doesn’t show the actual airways that would need to be used as that line goes right over the middle of Iran. Iran still doesn’t permit use of their airspace for flights to/from Israel, so the routing from Delhi would have to go via Pakistan, Oman, Saudi and Jordanian airspace.

    Also, for those who don’t recall, when Air India first launched flights to Tel Aviv in the 1990s they did fly from BOM-TLV via Saudi airspace with A310s. That permission was quickly withdrawn once the political subtleties were exposed and the route was cut soon thereafter since the A310 struggled on the longer route.

  5. @Raj: That image shows the great circle route. My guess is that the actual routing won’t follow the great circle route because it passes through both Iraq and Iran, which likely won’t grant permission for flights from/to Israel to traverse their airspace. I anticipate the actual routing will dip south some and enter Saudi airspace through the Persian Gulf.

  6. does it seem logical to open a flight only with 1 month in advance for sales?
    you will have so many empty flights

    did you ever see Air India open a flight with such a short time for sales?

  7. This news isn’t surprising since India has strong diplomatic ties with most countries in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. The concern has typically mostly been regarding the national origins of the airline rather than the operational routes. So, it’s not surprising that the routes has been granted after some diplomatic maneuvering by the Indian Govt. This is a lucrative route for AI given the extremely strong political, economic and defense ties with Israel.

  8. If your pictured map is correct, the route is flying just a hair north of The Kingdom…though it is nice to see the route overfly Iraq and iran.

  9. @ Bill — That’s just the direct route between the two countries, and is nowhere close to the route that will be flown, since they can’t overfly Iraq and Iran.

  10. The map above for EL 71 looks incorrect; that map shows the flight passing over Saudi Arabia, a bit of Yemen, and Oman which is not possible. I believe it flies down all the way down to the Gulf of Aden, over Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia, and then onwards to India.

  11. @ Charlie
    @ Lucky
    The map for EL 71 is probably “incomplete”. Websites like Flightaware and Flightradar24 use ADS-B tracking as long as it’s available. In this case, EL 71 was only tracked during the first and the very last part of the flight. The part in between was outside of any ADS-B tracking and the software just added a straight line (of different colour) between the known points of the flight.
    So you can assume that EL 71 (like probably every ELAL flight in this direction) only turned east over the Indian Ocean south of Yemen rather than “turn East near Yemen”.

  12. @Charlie : that’s just a site limitation at flightaware. green lines show actual recorded flight path available to the site, and whenever there’s missing data, they use a light blue to draw a straight line extrapolation to the next actual data point, irregardless of any type of re-routing, airspace restriction, etc.

  13. Private relations between Israel and Saudi are a lot warmer than the public stance would suggest

    There is even allegedly a contingency plan to allow the Israeli air force corridors across Saudi airspace to attack Iran if required

  14. @Alex. 100% correct. There is considerable cooperation between Israel, Saudi and the other Arab Gulf States. They all buy Israeli military hardware, for example.

  15. The Saudi government has always had dealings with Israel in secret, however, this gesture is more for India rather than Israel.

  16. Israeli media is reporting that the Saudi’s are denying that they approved Air India’s request to fly over the kingdom when traveling to / from Israel.

  17. Yes, even if the ME countries allowed overflight rights to El Al the problem of divert situations arise with a Israeli aircraft and Israeli passport holders. For years now there have been reports of secret Saudi-Israeli talks. Usually it’s the behind the scenes activity which counts more than the public. Who knows what has been going on for years. Note that Saudi, as close as it is to Israel, has never launched an attack on it, even given the tremendous military hardware that Saudi Arabia has. Of course, if they did, Isr. would clean their clock real quick. Still, it means that things aren’t always what they seem, statecraft, deals, etc.

  18. We should also remember, whatever happens on the surface, things are often quite different behind the scenes. With Iran being the common enemy, quite a few middle eastern countries have back channel communication and cooperation with Israel. Plus there are many other countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, but quietly trades with them quite regularly.

  19. I wish KSA would allow flights into the country to overfly Israel. BA’s LHR – RUH takes a convoluted route to avoid overflying the place.

  20. Although TLV is not even listed on Air India’s website as a destination, the Israel Airports Authority site shows Air India flights from New Delhi arriving at 2145 on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday and departing at 2315 from 20 March.

  21. As of today Air India announced direct connections from Delhi to tel aviv thrice a week starting from 22 March I think.

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