East of Eden -- Seven decades of blockade-busting airlines connecting Israel with Far East
It’s well after midnight. A thick layer of humidity blankets suburban Tel Aviv on this sultry July night in 1979. At Ben Gurion International Airport, a few hundred people settle into their seats on Alitalia flight 762, awaiting the awkwardly timed 2:50 a.m. departure for Bombay and points east.
Passengers and bags loaded, paperwork complete, the cabin doors are closed. Engines are started, and the mammoth Boeing 747 sputters to life to begin its solitary trek to Runway 30. Cleared for takeoff, the captain pushes forward on the throttle and airplane`lumbers down the runway into the darkness. A mile later, it will be airborne. Five miles out over the Mediterranean, the 747 will bank right and head north over the Mediterranean, careful to remain in international airspace well off the coasts of Lebanon and Syria. Upon reaching the Turkish coast, flight 762 will turn right and head east toward the Iranian border.
In 1979, Alitalia flight 762, operating as a Rome-Tel Aviv-Bombay-Singapore-Sydney-Melbourne service, was a routine weekly operation. In those days, reaching Southeast Asia meant hopscotching around hostile countries with multiple stops on a circuitous route north over Turkey and then southeast over Iran (still friendly to Israel prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1979) and over the Arabian Sea to avoid Pakistan, all the way to Bombay.
Since the Suez Crisis in 1956, nearly all Arab countries had banned Israeli civilian aircraft from overflight. Israel's only access to the Far East through through a long line of foreign carriers providing an aerial lifeline to Asia. By 1984, it was all over. Alitalia cut out the Tel Aviv stop to fly directly from Rome to Bombay and onward. And with that, Israel lost its last direct access to the Far East -- a casualty of politics, oil prices, and evolving airline economics,
With El Al blocked from flying from Tel Aviv east over the Arab states, how did Israelis reach Asia without having to backtrack all the way through Europe?
The answer lies in a lost world of empire and colony; in a Eurocentric airline network focused on London, Paris, and the likes – fanning out to the four corners of the globe to their respective imperial realms.
IMPERIAL CONNECTIONS THROUGH THE MIDDLE EAST
The Levant has always been a crossroads. In British Mandate Palestine, its airports served as a stopover connecting continents.
By 1925, Imperial Airways was connecting Cairo and Basra via Gaza and a remote outpost in Transjordan. A decade later, in conjunction with Qantas Empire Airways of Australia, the British flag carrier was flying a multi-day journey that could take passengers from London to Sydney with dozens of intermediate stops – now connecting Alexandria with Baghdad via Gaza. The following year, the British constructed what was then a state of the art airport at Lydda (later Lod Airport under the Israelis, to be later renamed as Ben Gurion Airport) in what was then Palestine. The facility was built primarily for military purposes, but its modern infrastructure quickly secured its role as the leading airfield in the region for long distance flights connecting Europe with the Middle East and beyond.
By 1939, Imperial Airways, which was merged that year with British Airways to form British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), was operating a route between Southampton and Calcutta with stops in Lydda, Baghdad, Bahrain and Karachi. KLM flew to the Dutch East Indies on an Amsterdam, Lydda, Baghdad, Basra, Jask, Karachi, Bandoeng route. And the Italian carrier Ala Littoria was flying from Rome to Basra with stops in Haifa and Baghdad. [AJ2]
By 1946, BOAC was connecting London with Karachi with a single stop at Lydda. From Karachi, the flight continued on to Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and Australia. The airline would continue to expand eastward from Palestine, and later, Israel. By 1966, BOAC operated three routes from eastward from Lod, as it was now known. With all flights originating in London (some with intermediate stops in Zurich or Rome), Flight 70 provided VC10 service from Lod to Tehran and New Delhi. Flight 912 was a long-haul 707 route continuing on from Lod to Bombay, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. And Flight 716/740 connected Lod with 707 service to Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, Darwin, Sydney and Auckland.
But in 1967, a Pakistani initiative under the Arab League Boycott Office exerted pressure on BOAC, declaring that the Arab states would no longer allow direct flights between Israel and India without an intermediate stopover. Ultimately, this forced BOAC to drop Tel Aviv from the long range Tokyo and Auckland routes which had both utilized the Tel Aviv-Bombay sector. Only the New Delhi flights operated via Tehran would remain. And that route would soon fall victim to the Iranian revolution, which would result in the cessation of diplomatic relations between Iran and Israel in 1979. Thereafter, Tel Aviv became an end node in the BOAC, and later British Airways, network, with all beyond service discontinued.
Like BOAC, Air France had established far-flung network before the war, reaching across the globe and in particular to its colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia. The Mid-East destinations were primarily in Francophile countries with stops in Beirut and Damascus.
By 1953, Air France was flying from Lod to Tehran. Tehran service would be expanded to continue on to Karachi and Calcutta. The route would evolve over the years. Karachi and Calcutta would be dropped for Bombay, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. Air France would continue to operate the service until the Iranian revolution forced it too to severe the route in 1979. From that point on, as with BOAC, Tel Aviv would remain a destination rather than a through point in Air France’s global network
NEW ENTRANTS AND A REVOLVING DOOR
TWA was a relative late comer to the scene. Although it had already been operating to Tel Aviv, only after 1967 did the U.S. flag carrier secure rights for onward passage. By 1968, TWA was connecting Lod Airport and the Far East with a Tel Aviv – Bombay – Colombo – Bangkok – Hong Kong route. In 1969, TWA finally secured rights for its long-sought around-the-world service. Now, Tel Aviv was linked to a globe girdling route that would continue beyond Hong Kong to Taipei, Okinawa, Guam, Honolulu and Los Angeles, before completing the circuit at New York’s JFK Airport. But the glamorous round-the-world service would not last long – a victim of the Arab Oil Embargo and a 1975 route swap with Pan Am in which the Bombay rights were transferred to TWA’s rival. And with that, TWA’s turn at connecting Israel with the Far East would come to an end – yet another carrier joining the ranks of downgrading Tel Aviv to the status of a terminal destination.
But two years later, Alitalia would pick up the moribund route, operating a weekly 747-200 flight originating in Rome with a stop in Tel Aviv before continuing on to Bombay, Singapore, Sydney and Melbourne. Since all service from Tel Aviv to the east via Tehran had terminated in 1979, including El Al’s own flights to the Iranian capital, the Alitalia route was Israel’s sole remaining air connection to the Far East. Ultimately, Alitalia dropped Tel Aviv link, instead operating non-stop from its Rome hub to Bombay and onward. By 1984, Israel had lost all of its direct air access to the east.
It would take nearly a decade – and the sudden and unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union nearly a decade – to break the logjam. And when it did – an entirely new era for El Al and Israel’s aeropolitical access – would suddenly dawn