Air India to make history with Delhi-Tel Aviv flight today

Even as the evaluating committee is in process of finalising bidding norms for the sale of the beleaguered Air India, the airline has managed to make history once again. The first Air India direct flight from New Delhi to Tel Aviv will take off today at 6.10 pm. Significantly, this will be the first time that Saudi Arabia allows an Israel-bound flight to enter its airspace, thus ending a seven decade old ban.

Many Arab and Islamic nations do not recognise Israel and, therefore, disallow airlines from using their airspace for flight services to and from the latter. Riyadh lifting the airspace ban reflects what appears to be thawing ties between Israel and the kingdom. Both countries are US allies with a shared concern over growing Iranian influence in the region, especially after the 2015 nuclear accord, which both governments strongly opposed.

“The response has been good so far and the inaugural flight has sold 50 per cent seats. The return flight has seen much better bookings with 80 per cent of the seats booked,” claimed an Air India official. The return flight is scheduled for March 25, when the summer schedule comes into operation. With this the national carrier kicks off a thrice-a-week service between the two cities. It will be operating its 256-seater Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the route – with flights scheduled every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday – and the introductory return fares start at Rs. 35,500.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry reportedly said in a statement that Israel considers the new route important. He further noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the matter of the route with his counterpart, Narendra Modi, when the two met in Israel last July and again in India two months back. The ministry added that the route would lower fares along with boosting investment and tourism from India.

The unprecedented clearance to fly over Saudi airspace is a big deal also because it opens up a shorter route between the two countries. The Air India flight will fly over Oman, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to reach Israel, covering the distance in a little over 7 hours.  That’s more than 2 hours less than the only alternative flight available currently – El Al’s four weekly flights from Tel Aviv to Mumbai. Due to the airspace restrictions, Israel’s flag carrier is forced to take a more circuitous route over the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which makes for a longer flight. No wonder Air India’s Chairman and Managing Director Pradeep Kharola anticipates traveller interest in the new service even from countries further to the east of India, such as Australia.

Recognizing that El Al would now be at disadvantage, both in terms of cost and travel time, its CEO Gonen Usishkin reportedly penned a letter to the International Air Transport Association earlier this month seeking “equal overfly rights” to ensure a fair competition. “I am approaching you and kindly requesting IATA to intervene and to represent aviation industry’s interest by advocating equal overfly rights for all carriers over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and opposing any form of discrimination,” he wrote in the letter, seen by Reuters, adding that he has also approached Netanyahu. Any such move, however, would mark a dramatic diplomatic shift between the Arab nation and what may soon come to be known as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”, if Israel passes its controversial nation-state bill. So Air India is likely to retain its edge on this route for some time to come.


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