Saudi Arabia has granted Air India approval to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv using Saudi airspace, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported Wednesday (Feb 7).
The decision, which will be implemented in March, means that the flights from New Delhi to Tel Aviv would be shortened by two and a half hours.
The new route, Haaretz said, means that the airline would reduce fuel costs and sell cheaper tickets to passengers.
The Saudi government had banned flights headed to Israel from using its airspace for 70 years. While it is no secret that private jets can fly from Saudi and other Gulf airports to Israell, they could not use the direct route and had to make a stop-over in Amman airport first, according to Al Jazeera.
The move is seen as a nod to India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi's influence in the region, who is expected to land in the occupied West Bank on February 10, Al Jazeera pointed out. Last year, he became the first Indian premier to go to Israel on an official state visit.
But the decision also signifies warmer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, who have been linked to having increasingly covert relations over the last year, Al Jazeera said, adding: This has been credited to the shakeup of Saudi domestic and foreign policy, spearheaded by the young and ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman."
"The political changes in Saudi Arabia and the desire to consolidate power is the main reason why these relations with Israel were opened," Mahjoob Zweiri, an associate professor with the Gulf Studies Program department at Qatar University, previously told Al Jazeera.
However, Reuters quoted a spokesman for Saudi Arabia's General Authority of Civil Aviation as denying the Haaretz report. The Saudi spokesman said the agency had not granted Air India permission to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv.
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, Haarezt said. 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.
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, the Israeli daily said, adding: "Though we have known for years of quiet coordination on security issues, there has not yet been any tangible evidence above the surface."