On Sunday, February 26, an El Al flight made history by flying from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv to Bangkok, Thailand, in 7 hours and 49 minutes, besting the previous record by nearly three hours. The Boeing 787 did not fly any faster than usual, it just flew a far shorter distance.
This was a result of the Sultanate of Oman opening its airspace to Israeli airliners.
Previously, in order to fly to Bangkok, El Al aircraft had to fly south to Ethiopia and then cut back up over India, as shown in Figure 1. At least the 787 could make the trip without having to refuel. Less than twenty years ago, El Al still flew to Bangkok on an old 747-200 and a two-hour refueling stop in Mumbai (then called Bombay) was required. By opening Omani airspace to Israeli aircraft, a much more direct route was opened, as shown in Figure 2. The pilots hailed the “historic flight” shortly before takeoff.
"We will fly over the Arabian Peninsula, over Oman, the Israeli flag will fly over Oman for the first time,” one of the pilots said.
“Our flight will become shorter by two and a half hours, which is very significant. We are launching the fast line to Bangkok and to the Far East in general. We are very happy and excited to be here.”
The route to the east has steadily become shorter as relations between Israel and her Arab neighbors have steadily improved. Until 2018, no flights to or from Israel were permitted to fly over any Arab country barring two exceptions: a Royal Jordanian flight to Amman and an El Al flight to Cairo (El Al flights to Cairo ceased in 2012 due to a shortage of passengers and high operating costs and were renewed by Egyptian Airlines only last year). In 2018, Air India began flying direct flights between Delhi and Tel Aviv. Through an agreement with Saudi Arabia, these flights were allowed to traverse Saudi airspace. El Al petitioned the Israeli government to bar the flights as their own flight to Mumbai was forced to take the Saudi bypass route, making it two hours longer than the Air India flight. The Israeli government denied El Al’s claim. Since then, Air India has increased the number of flights to Delhi from three per week to a daily flight, a flight that is nearly always packed, typically with Israeli defense contractors and backpackers.
The signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 was accompanied by a Saudi concession to allow Israeli flights to fly in Saudi airspace as long as they were flying to Dubai or to Abu Dhabi. Since then, Dubai has become the most popular destination from Ben Gurion Airport with more than seventy weekly flights. The next step was taken in 2022, when the Saudis opened their airspace to Israeli aircraft that were not flying to the UAE, enabling the saving of about fifteen minutes on flights to South Africa and to the Far East. Nevertheless, cutting across Saudi Arabia remained out of reach because exiting Saudi airspace from the southeast meant overflying either Yemen or Oman, neither of which had diplomatic relations with Israel. While Prime Minister Netanyahu met with the Omani Sultan Qaboos in 2018, Israeli relations with Oman have since blown hot and cold, as Oman has remained solidly in the Iranian sphere of influence. Last month, the Omanis finally agreed to open their airspace to Israeli airliners and only three days later, El Al began flying the new route.
The opening of Omani airspace will not only shorten flights to the Far East, it will open routes that were previously inaccessible to El Al. One of these routes is to Melbourne, Australia, a city with a large Jewish population and a popular destination for Israelis. Without overflying Oman, the flight to Melbourne would take 17 hours, placing it at the ragged edge of the range of a Boeing 787. El Al has flown this route exactly once, in 2020, to extract Israelis from Australia at the onset of the COVID pandemic. By overflying Oman, that route is cut to 14 hours, putting it solidly with reach of El Al’s jets and making it economically feasible. But there is more. The opening of Omani airspace reduces the amount of fuel burnt on a flight and will lead to a reduction in the cost of flights for Israelis heading east. It will reduce the cost of import and export of goods to and from Israel. Shorter flights will encourage tourism. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that the development could turn Israel into “the central transfer point between Asia and Europe.”
This brings us back to the Abraham Accords. Currently, only the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain and South Sudan have signed on the Accords and have normalized relations with Israel. One cannot believe that the progressive opening of Saudi airspace to Israeli jets is not part of a greater trend of warming Saudi relations with her erstwhile enemy. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, both Saudi Arabia and Oman, along with additional Arab countries, will sign on the Accords. The vector seems to be headed in that direction.
On a recent trip to Australia, I had the pleasure of flying the Tel Aviv – Dubai leg with Aryeh Lightstone, Senior Advisor to former U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. As we boarded the flyDubai jet, Aryeh looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “I always have a great feeling of pride knowing that in some way I helped make this flight a reality.” I tip my hat to Aryeh. American brokering was critical to the signing of the Abraham Accords. But there is much more work to be done. Only after El Al flies to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Jakarta in Indonesia, and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, will we earn the luxury of stopping to look back at what has been accomplished.
Wishing you a quiet week,