International News

    El Al Sues Israel After Air India Flies Through Saudi Airspace

    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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