(March 12, 2018 / Makor Rishon/Exclusive to JNS) Air India began selling tickets this past week for the first flight in its new leg from New Delhi to Tel Aviv and back again. The route, which will begin operations on March 22 with three weekly flights by the national carrier of India, will fly directly over Saudi Arabia.
Today, all Israeli carriers, as well as every foreign carrier that takes off or lands in Israel, is banned from passing through the airspace of all Arab states, with the exception of Jordan and Egypt—countries that have recognized international peace treaties with Israel. Because of the ban, flights from Israel to Asia are forced to fly north to Turkey and only then turn east, and vice versa—a detour that adds several hours to each flight.
The Air India route will become the first international one to travel through the skies of an Arab country with no official ties with Israel. As such, it will break an aerial embargo initiated by Arab states with Israel’s founding in 1948. Flying over Saudi Arabia will shorten the flight time between India and Israel by hours and enable the carriers to drop ticket prices by hundreds of dollars.
“This is truly a historic event,” said Israel’s Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin in an exclusive interview. “It is proof that political change can be achieved without resorting to territorial compromise.”
However, he added, “until the flight lands, I recommend restrained enthusiasm.”
Levin explained that “the move is dramatic—from both a political and tourism standpoint. What the new route means is that the world is beginning to treat us in a whole new way. Until now, some countries have completely avoided any public demonstration of a connection with Israel. As for tourism, as soon as there is a short direct route to India, and maybe other places as well, prices will drop and tourism will swell.”
Levin said the idea of a new route was first voiced in his office two years ago. A grant of 3.2 million NIS that the Ministry of Tourism promised Air India convinced their directorate to take the financial risk of opening the new route.
A tempered optimism
Despite the excitement in Israel, the public response is still restrained; everyone is aware of the sensitivity surrounding the new route. Saudi Arabia is a central state in the Persian Gulf, and for decades has steadfastly refused any rapprochement with Israel. In recent years, as a result of geostrategic changes in the Middle East and increased openness in Saudi Arabia to the Western world, informal ties have increased between the Muslim kingdom and the Jewish state.
The Saudi press has taken a softer approach to Israel, and informal representatives of the royal family have met with Israelis. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot and Israeli Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz have been interviewed on Saudi television. In addition to the visible steps come reports in the foreign press of intelligence cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and meetings between representatives of the two governments.
Two sources involved with the effort to open the new route claimed that premature announcements in the Israeli press, especially in recent months, delayed the process. They also revealed that above and beyond the complexities of the arrangements with the Saudis, Israel took additional security precautions before confirming the new route.
The agencies involved with opening the route described the activity behind the scenes as “a two-year operation involving three states: Israel, Saudi Arabia and India, the last one being the central player.”
The sources note that the Saudis presented extremely rigid demands.
“It’s not a normal situation of Air India announcing a new route, and the planes begin flying,” said Levin. “The party that convinced the Saudis to enter the agreement was India. The topic was discussed at the highest levels in both governments, and [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu]’s visit to India two months ago may have been a major stepping stone in the process. But today, it has come to pass, and the period of spinning our wheels is behind us.”
A potential bump to El Al
One party that won’t benefit from the agreement, in the meantime, is the Israeli national air carrier El Al. The airline operates a route to Mumbai, in the center of the subcontinent. As the Saudis do not permit El Al to fly through their airspace, their flights will be longer and more expensive. They project a loss of income to Air India; announcements to that effect were made to the stock exchange.
Levin responded that it is not certain that El Al will be hurt, as Delhi is further than Mumbai, and each city is located in a different region of India.
“If it turns out that El Al experiences losses, we will have to find a mechanism to compensate them,” he stated. “But El Al flies to Mumbai, and it will still be faster to fly there directly rather than going through Delhi, so the financial loss should be minimal.”
Levin, who remained cautious “until we see the plane not just take off from there, but also land here,” said that even if the Saudis withdraw from the agreement and Air India is forced to fly the longer route, the opening of a new flight course between Israel and India is an important step for the tourism industry.
“I believe that the route will be profitable and will be a springboard for tourism from India, similar to what happened with the Chinese Hainan airline” that now flies directly to Tel Aviv, he said. “As soon as a local airline enters the field, it’s a whole new ballgame.”