• Steve Jaffe

El Al lands in Abu Dhabi – breaks two new barriers on historic flight

August 31, 2020 marked an historic day for aviation in Israel. El Al flight 971, a Boeing 737-900ER arrived in Abu Dhabi from Tel Aviv at 15:38 after departing Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport 3 hours and 15 minutes earlier. The flight marked two major milestones – it was the first Israeli airliner to fly to the UAE; and at least as significant, it marked the first time that an Israeli commercial airplane was granted overflight rights from Saudi Arabia.

The flight came just two and half weeks after the surprise White House announcement of the breakthrough normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel. Onboard flight 971 was a cadre of American and Israeli officials, led by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and special representative for Middle East peace negotiations, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Head of Israel’s National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat.

The 737-900ER was festooned with celebratory features, including a “saalem, peace, shalom” decal in Arabic, English, and Hebrew prominently displayed near the front boarding door Flags of the three nations were raised from the flight deck upon landing in Abu Dhabi, an eclectic Middle Eastern cuisine was served onboard, and passengers received ceremonial facemasks decorated with the flags of the three countries. Even the flight number, LY 971, was symbolic – representing the international calling code for the UAE. The return flight, LY 972, likewise used the three-digit code for Israel.

VIP lineup for ceremonial first flight to Abu Dhabi

O'Brian, Kushner, and Ben Shabbat board LY 971

But the flight represented much more than a chance to bask in the limelight of what otherwise has been a gloomy season for aviation. With the opening of Saudi airspace, along with the previously announced airspace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, Israel has finally broken the 75-year stranglehold on direct flying to the east. In fact, El Al had to produce two different flight plans for the mission, as just prior to departure the official Saudi overflight permissions had not yet been received.

The two flight plans, shown below, demonstrate the critical value of access to airspace over the Arabian Peninsula. The traditional flight plan tracks down the Red Sea and continues east through the Gulf of Aden until finally clear of Yemeni airspace well east of Socotra, before heading north from ORLED into Oman and the UAE.

LY 971 Flight Plan avoiding Saudi airspace

The actual flight took a far-more direct route, entering Saudi Arabia from Jordan and tracking southeast to Riyadh before turning east and approaching AUH along the UAE-Omani border. At 1,470 NM, the direct route saved a whopping 1,980 NM compared to the Red Sea route.

LY 971 Flight Plan over Saudi Arabia

Prior to departure from Ben Gurion Airport, pilot Tal Becker greeted the passengers.

“Shalom and welcome on EL AL flight 971 from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi. We are very pleased to host you on this historic inaugural flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi.”

“This flight records two significant events in the history of the State of Israel and in the region heralding another step towards regional peace — for the very first time an Israeli-registered aircraft will overfly Saudi Arabia, and, after a nonstop flight from Israel, land in the United Arab Emirates.”

“The duration of the flight with the shortened route over Saudi Arabia will be three and a half hours, instead of what would have been approximately eight hours as we fly eastbound,” the pilot explained. “At the end of this historic nonstop flight, the wheels of this aircraft, with the flag of the State of Israel on its tail, will touch down on the runway in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. This will be another significant event in our history, just as El Al was there when peace was signed between Jerusalem, Cairo and Amman.

“We are all excited and look forward to more historic flights that will take us to other capital cities in the region, advancing us all to a more prosperous future,” Becker said. “Wishing us all salaam, peace and shalom,” he concluded, using the Arabic, English, and Hebrew words. (Times of Israel 8/31/20

LY 971 Actual track flown

An air services agreement between Israel and the UAE was one of the many bilateral agreements to be negotiated over the coming weeks. That would determine the scope and frequency of commercial services between the two countries.

To think of Etihad and Emirates serving Tel Aviv – or El with scheduled flights to Abu Dhabi and Dubai seemed almost ludicrous just weeks ago. Suddenly, it’s only a matter of time.

In the meantime, all participants and observers were notably and justifiably, upbeat – even downright joyous – over the inaugural flight. And in a year like 2020, shouldn’t we all?

Changing Times -- Emeratis great El Al Flight 971

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