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The Saga of El Al, Air India, and Saudi Arabian Airspace

An El Al 737-800 in Brussels (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Fabian Behr)

The Backstory

On Thursday, March 22, an Air India Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner took off from Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, bound for Tel Aviv, Israel.

The flight – Air India flight 139 – took off to the South, avoiding Pakistani airspace in an ever-contentious region of the nation’s skies, before continuing east over the Arabian sea before finally making landfall over eastern Oman. Not even an hour later, the flight, up to this point just a run-of-the-mill inaugural flight, was on the verge of doing something historic.

As the aircraft entered the skies over Saudi Arabia, Air India joined a list that previously included only the U.S.’s Air Force One: the only flights in decades to use Saudi Arabia’s airspace.

Israeli flag carrier El Al, who for years has operated a flight to Mumbai by traveling southwest before circling around the entire Arabian Peninsula before heading out across the water, was not pleased with the decision for a number of reasons.

Firstly, while some saw the decision by the Saudi government as a signal of a warming of relations, others saw it as just another way the Middle Eastern nation could snub El Al, giving their competition an advantage with a shorter route, and thus, lower fuel costs.

The Lawsuit

Earlier this week, El Al responded. They would not find themselves making much progress with appeals to the Saudi government and aviation authorities, so they turned to home. Late this week, the airline in the nation’s Supreme Court filed a suit against the government the Civil Aviation Authority Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, transportation minister Yisrael Katz, and Air India.

El Al said in the suit it believes the decision by the government to allow Air India to fly the route is hurting them as an airline because they still are relegated a much more circuitous and expensive path to India.

“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,” Eli Defes, chairman of El Al’s board told the New York Times in an interview.

The airline is requesting the government halt Air India’s flights until El Al is allowed to fly those routes through Saudi Arabian airspace.

Katz, however,  in a Tweet dictated the government’s stance, adding that he hoped the flight would allow El Al to take the same step in the future.

“The first Air India direct flight to Israel through Saudi airspace reflects the positive change which is gradually taking place in the region,” Katz’s Tweet read. “I hope that in the not so distant future Israeli carriers like El Al will also be allowed to use this route.”

Netanyahu is yet to directly comment on the situation, his only remarks thus far on the flight touting the benefits that may come from a lessening of tensions between the two countries.

“Air India flew directly to Israel, on a straight line from India to Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu said in a cabinet meeting last week. “The significance is clear to all. This is significant economically, technologically, diplomatically, and for tourism.”

The Next Step

Nobody knows for sure what, if anything, will be done to ensure there is no violation of agreements meant to preserve competition in the aviation industry.

Katz’s Tweet seems to have hinted El Al may have the opportunity to operate flights over Saudi Arabia in the near future, but that is nowhere near a sure thing. At the same time, the Israeli government has hinted in various meetings open to the press they could be working on compensation for El Al.

For now, however, the two airlines will continue flying – one over Saudi Arabia, one not — subjected as always to the whims of international politics.

Parker Davis


  • Parker Davis

    Parker joined AirlineGeeks as a writer and photographer in 2016, combining his longtime love for aviation with a newfound passion for journalism. Since then, he’s worked as a Senior Writer before becoming Editor-in-Chief of the site in 2020. Originally from Dallas and an American frequent flyer, he left behind the city’s rich aviation history to attend college in North Carolina, where he’s studying economics.

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