It was just a subtle turn to the left, a few degrees east of the usual route. This was no navigational error but rather the aeronautical-geopolitical equivalent of dipping your toes in the water before fully going in.
A few minutes past midnight on Aug. 23, Arkia Flight IZ611 departed Tel Aviv‘s Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) bound for Seychelles International Airport (SEZ). The Airbus A321neo, packed with Israeli vacationers, briefly transited over Jordan before entering Saudi airspace.
The flight did not spend much time over Saudi Arabia. After skimming the country’s west coast, it soon veered toward the Red Sea to rejoin the usual path Israeli airliners take when heading to the Indian Ocean and beyond. The small Saudi detour shaved some 20 minutes off the usual flight time; however, the political resonance of this charter flight was much more difficult to quantify.
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The significance of Flight IZ611
Israeli airline ARKIA Airbus A321 aircraft taking off from the Israeli Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to the city of Eilat in southern Israel. JACK GUEZ/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Flight IZ611’s move into Saudi Arabia was monumental. It was the first time that Saudi authorities let an Israeli airliner overfly their territory in order to reach a country other than the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain.
Until very recently, several countries in the Middle East were totally closed to any air traffic to and from Israel. The 2020 Abraham Accords changed most of this, though, by normalizing relations among Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. This move was subsequently followed by a handful of other countries in the Arab world.
While these agreements cover way more than aviation, where diplomats go, airlines tend to follow. A tangible consequence of this new state of affairs has been the establishment of a number of air routes that barely a couple of years ago were firmly in the domain of political fiction.
Take this coming winter season as an example. Passengers traveling between Dubai International Airport (DXB) and TLV have their pick of options, with El Al Israel Airlines, Emirates, Flydubai, Arkia and Israir Airlines all offering nonstop flights between the two cities. Meanwhile, Etihad Airways and Wizz Air Abu Dhabi do the same between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).
There are no flights to and from Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi kingdom has facilitated all those flights, as well as Gulf Air’s route from TLV to Bahrain International Airport (BAH), by allowing them to overfly its territory.
Likewise, Morocco, a country where hundreds of thousands of Israelis have family roots, has also established diplomatic relations and air links with Israel. El Al, Israir, Arkia and Royal Air Maroc all offer flights from TLV to both Casablanca’s Mohammed V International Airport (CMN) and Marrakesh Menara Airport (RAK).
Sudan has opened its airspace to air traffic to and from Israel, too, enabling a potential new vector of growth for the Israeli air travel industry.
These Morocco and Sudan routes are not so much about improving access to African destinations — a quick check on Flightradar24, for example, showed that El Al continues to use its traditional routing over the Red Sea and Eritrea for its flights to Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB).
Instead, they offer the prospect of new regular nonstop flights between Israel and South America. A special El Al charter flight returning from Argentina already made use of this option in June 2020 shortly after the Sudanese authorities granted overflight rights, though nonstop South American routes have so far failed to materialize.
New routes that may be on the horizon
El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner takes off from Los Angeles International Airport. AARONP/BAUER-GRIFFIN/GC IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES
One of the most momentous airspace openings, which was widely expected to take place this summer, may still have to wait. It seems that Omani authorities haven’t yet decided on whether to allow overflights by Israeli airlines. A simple look at a map shows why the Israeli air travel industry is eagerly awaiting Oman’s decision.
Strategically located between hostile Iran to the north and war-torn Yemen to the south, Oman provides the most convenient point for Israeli airlines to access the Indian Ocean and continue on to India and East Asia. Countries like India and Thailand have long been favorites among Israeli tourists, but reaching these countries from Israel currently requires taking flights that must travel long and circuitous routes.
Without Saudi and Omani overflights, a flight between TLV and, for example, Bangkok‘s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) would typically require flying southward over the Gulf of Aqaba, then over the Red Sea and around the Arabian Peninsula before crossing the Indian Ocean along a rather southerly route.
A routing through Oman would save El Al and other Israeli airlines about 2 1/2 hours of flight time and tons of fuel. Additionally, it would make it possible to deploy narrow-body aircraft on some routes, such as those to Indian destinations, providing an additional degree of operational flexibility to airline planners.
This expanded range of possibilities will also make it easier for Israeli airlines to open up new markets that have been in the cards for quite some time, such as Australia. Back in 2019, El Al even conducted a test with one of its Boeing 787-9 aircraft, which flew all the way to Melbourne Airport (MEL) from TLV and back. With Saudi and Omani overflight rights, flight times on the Australia route could potentially be cut to as little as 15 1/2 hours.
Only time will tell which other destinations may eventually make the list.
Featured photo by stellalevi/Getty Images.