El Al Sues Israel After Air India Flies Through Saudi Airspace
TEL AVIV — The Israeli government has hailed Air India’s new nonstop service from New Delhi to Tel Aviv as a historic breakthrough — the Indian carrier is the first commercial airline to take a geopolitical shortcut through Saudi Arabian airspace.
But Israel’s national airline, El Al, still has to take the long way and fears that it will suffer serious financial damage from what it views as aerial discrimination.
So in a first of its own, El Al petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court on Wednesday, filing suit against the government; the Civil Aviation Authority; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the transportation minister, Yisrael Katz; and Air India.
Flying in a straight line cuts more than two hours off the usual flight time, and allows Air India to lower its ticket price. Even though Saudi Arabia granted permission for the route, El Al is asking the Israeli court to prevent Air India from taking the shorter path unless the Israeli carrier receives a similar permit.
The dispute was touched off by Air India’s inaugural flight last week from New Delhi. As is the case with most of its neighbors in the Middle East, Israel does not have formal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis have for decades banned jets traveling to or from Israel from crossing their airspace.
The informal web of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia is usually maintained well below the radar, and the flyover permit granted to Air India is being seen in Israel as an unusually visible sign of improved ties as the old foes’ interests have converged over issues like curbing Iran’s influence in the region.
“The Israeli skies are connecting with the Saudi Arabian skies in one direct flight,” Mr. Katz, the transportation minister, said in a statement after greeting the maiden Air India flight on the tarmac in Tel Aviv.
Saudi Arabia has not publicly commented on the matter. Mr. Netanyahu has been similarly opaque, avoiding mentioning Saudi Arabia by name in his remarks at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
“Air India flew directly to Israel, on a straight line from India to Tel Aviv,” he said. “The significance is clear to all. This is significant economically, technologically, diplomatically and for tourism.”
El Al contends that Air India now has an advantage that violates the principle of fair competition and policies meant to ensure equal opportunities between Israeli airlines and foreign carriers.
“The permit that Saudi gave to Air India to fly over its territory to Israel is a global precedent,” Eli Defes, the chairman of El Al’s board, said in an interview last week at the airline’s offices at Ben Gurion Airport. “According to all the international organizations we checked with, there is no similar phenomenon anywhere in the world.”
To illustrate the perceived injustice, he added, “It’s as if British Airways were allowed to fly a short route between London and New York while United Airlines or Delta were obligated to fly to London via Africa.”
For years, El Al has been the sole airline operating direct flights to India, flying four times a week between Tel Aviv and Mumbai. El Al planes have to take a circuitous route, flying low along the Red Sea and across the Arabian Sea, circumventing the entire Arabian Peninsula.
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The additional flight time requires more fuel and a larger crew, driving up the ticket price, according to Mr. Defes.
Air India halted its direct flights to Israel via the longer route years ago, but is now flying the New Delhi-Tel Aviv route three times a week, with a flight time of about 7.5 hours.
But Mr. Defes fears that the Air India deal will be the start of a trend and that other airlines will obtain permission to fly over Saudi Arabia en route to Israel. Along with its attractive introductory fare, Air India is offering cheap transfers from New Delhi to Thailand, another destination popular with Israelis.
There has been talk of government compensation for El Al, but Mr. Defes said it was impossible to assess the scope of the damage given the possibility that other airlines may get permission to fly over Saudi Arabia.
El Al has prepared color-coded maps showing the areas from which it is banned from flying over: The air space over much of North Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan and Indonesia are among the no-go zones, requiring significant detours.
El Al’s lawyers say that the deal with Air India violates a binding commitment to ensure fair competition and equal opportunities it made with the Israeli government when it was privatized in 1994, as well as international aviation conventions. The airline is asking for an injunction prohibiting Air India flights to Israel over Saudi Arabia until it is afforded the same privilege.
Israeli officials have responded with vague prospects that Israeli carriers may soon be granted permission to fly over Saudi Arabia. Mr. Katz wrote on Twitter last week that he hoped this would happen “in the not so distant future.”
In response to the court petition on Wednesday, the Transportation Ministry said in a statement that the permission to fly over Saudi Arabia was “a diplomatic achievement of the first order,” but that it was up to the Israeli government to ensure that El Al was not harmed by the development.
Mr. Netanyahu said his goal was to introduce shorter, five-hour flights from Tel Aviv to Mumbai, but did not specify if he was referring to flights by El Al or Air India. His office would not elaborate.
The Israeli Tourism Ministry has provided Air India with a grant to market its new route, as part of a campaign to encourage Indian tourism in Israel.
About 58,000 Indian tourists visited Israel in 2017, according to the Tourism Ministry, up from 34,600 in 2014. “More than 50 million Indians hold passports,” the ministry said.
El Al flies about 60,000 Israelis to India per year, about 70 percent of them business travelers. India is also popular with younger Israelis, particularly those who have completed their compulsory army service, but many take cheaper flights via connections in third countries.