Saudi Arabia has granted Air India approval to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv, sources in the Israeli flight industry told Haaretz. If confirmed, this would be the first time the Saudis are allowing commerical flights to Israel to use their airspace.
According to Reuters, a spokesman for Saudi Arabia's General Authority of Civil Aviation denied the report, saying the agency had not granted Air India permission to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv.
If true, Riyadh's approval would mean that the duration of flights from India to Israel will be shortened by two-and-a-half hours, compared to the route currently in use. The new route would allow the airline to reduce fuel costs and sell cheaper tickers to passengers.
Only one carrier currently operates direct flights from Israel to India, El Al, which flies an 8-hour route from Tel Aviv to Mumbai. The route crosses the Red Sea south of Yemen, then turns east to India. Since New Delhi is a new destination from which there are no flights to Israel, the aviation company will be getting a 750,000 euro grant from the Tourism Ministry for operating the new line, according to a calculation of 250,000 euros per weekly flight. This grant could be, among other things, the impetus for Air India to launch the line.
This is not the first time Air India asked Israeli authorities for such approval. Last year, the airline asked the Israel Airports Authority's to allow it to fly to and from Israel. This was not implemented, however, due to the airline's insistence to operate the shorter route. Discussions on the matter evolved during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to India last month, where intensive talks were held between the two countries in order to approve the flight route over Saudi Arabia.
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Air India's Delhi-Tel Aviv route could be the first concrete and public piece of evidence to the warming of ties between Israel and the Saudi leadership. Though we have known for years of quiet coordination on security issues, there has not yet been any tangible evidence above the surface.