Israel’s El Al Airlines makes historic flight through Saudi airspace en route to UAE

August 31, 2020, 11:12 AM UTC

An El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. plane flew through Saudi Arabian airspace for the first time, a sign of the improving diplomatic relations in the region.

Flight LY 971, the same digits as the United Arab Emirates’ international phone code, traveled over the kingdom to Abu Dhabi on Monday after the countries agreed earlier this month to establish ties. Following a deal brokered by the U.S., talks focusing on economic issues are due to start this week.

One of the pilots confirmed over the intercom before takeoff that the flight is passing over Saudi Arabia, shortening the journey by about four hours.

The opening of Saudi skies is crucial politically and for Israeli airlines, given its large land mass blocking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from several key destinations to the East. The flight comes after El Al was grounded because of the coronavirus pandemic, with the airline needing to arrange a financing plan to resume full operations.

“If we come to an agreement with Saudi Arabia, it opens extraordinary doors for El Al,” said David Sprecher, a senior aviation attorney at TransLex Lawyers, with offices in Israel and the UAE. Access to Saudi airspace would shorten routes and make El Al much more competitive when it comes to flying to India and other Asian markets, he said.

When operating, El Al’s planes have had to run a dogleg route to Mumbai, for example, down the Red Sea and up the Gulf of Aden to avoid Saudi airspace. That adds two hours to the trip from Tel Aviv and puts the Israeli carrier at a huge disadvantage to Air India, which can fly the route direct.

The opening will give the UAE’s biggest carriers—Emirates and Etihad—an opportunity to feed Israeli passengers through their airport hubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, respectively, connecting to destinations further east and west. Currently, Royal Jordanian and Turkish Airlines are the only carriers in the Middle East that fly to Israel.