Freedom at Last -- the opening of Saudi airspace for Israeli and foreign airlines
Finally -- and officially -- it's here! Saudi overflight rights are a huge breakthrough for the Israeli aviation market. And while the Saudis poured cold water over the whole thing, insisting that the move had nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of incremental normalization steps with Israel, the effect is the same.
What are the benefits? In a word, significantly shorter flight times that present a wide array of connections that were previously either operationally or economically unfeasible. The biggest winner – El Al. But competitors will also take advantage, evening out the playing field. Let's take a look.
Before we do – one caveat: Access to Omani airspace is critical to creating a flight corridor over the Arabian peninsula. Jerusalem doesn’t seem to be too concerned about this. Then-Prime Minister Netanyahu assured the Israeli public after his visit to Muscat in December 2018, that the (late) Sultan Qaboos, had assured him that El Al could use Oman’s airspace. It is believed that that understanding will be re-confirmed.
Existing routes to Mumbai, Bangkok, and Phuket will be shortened by about 2.5 hours. While El Al currently faces no competition in these markets and can charge a premium, shorter flight times and reduced costs should be a net benefit for travelers, resulting in increased capacity and competition. The Saudi shortcut puts Mumbai within narrowbody aircraft range. This would enable El Al to reduce capacity in non-peak times, increase frequency without greatly increasing seats, or add incremental capacity at peak times.
The Hong Kong route is a wash. The current track is north to Turkey, then over the former Soviet Republics before entering Western China. This route is a little north of the most-direct great circle route. The southern track over Arabia and India and Indochina is a little south of the great circle route. El Al might decide to use either depending on wind conditions. Otherwise, flight time would be about the same.
Direct eastbound access opens up new route possibilities for El Al. Singapore is a major draw for business and upscale leisure travelers. While the current visitor count between the two countries is low, a direct flight would stimulate demand. And Vietnam, whether Hanoi or Hoh Chi Minh City, is a huge draw for the Israeli backpacker crowd. While a low-yield route, it could be economically viable with a significantly reduced flight time.
Highly likely is that El Al will start flying to Delhi, which becomes far more viable with a direct route over Saudi Arabia and Oman. Bengaluru is also an attractive destination for the tech industry. Air India has announced its intention to start service to Tel Aviv from Mumbai and Bengaluru in addition to its current daily flight from Delhi.
The biggest prize would be a non-stop flight to Australia. Direct routing now puts Melbourne within a 15-16 hour flight range -- entirely feasible with El Al’s fleet of 787-9 aircraft. The airline was experimenting with the route and had announced a set of four trial commercial flights to take place in Spring, 2020. Unfortunately, the Pandemic hit just before and those flights never happened. Instead, El Al did operate a repatriation flight in April 2020 from Melbourne to Tel Aviv non-stop through the Red Sea Route, squeezing every bit of range out of the 787-9 on the 17:44 return leg.
Arkia has already announced its intention to begin flights to Goa (India) in November. The airline said it is also interested in new destinations in Thailand and Sri Lanka. Vietnam and The Maldives would also be a popular destination for the leisure-market airline.
Here’s what we can expect from the foreign airlines.
Philippine Airlines announced its intention in January 2020 to start non-stop service between Manilla and Tel Aviv in April. April came and went and there’s been no word since. The back story seems to be that they were negotiating for Saudi overflight rights which have not been forthcoming. We can now expect this route to open soon.
Israel and Thailand have long-standing good relations. Israelis flock to the Southeast Asian nation in droves – about 200,000 annually. And there are about 25,000 Thai workers in Israel. The market could support the entry of Thai Airways to compete with El Al’s daily flights to Bangkok as well as less frequent service to Phuket. With a direct routing now available, we might see Thai Airways jump into the fray.
Vietnam Airlines and Bamboo Airlines
Vietnam is very popular with the Israeli backpacker crowd and trade between the two countries is growing. With no current non-stop flights, this is an opportunity for Vietnam Airlines, which could operate the route with a 787 or A350. Alternatively, rival Bamboo Airlines could jump into this market as a growth opportunity. The two airlines are expanding internationally and both plan to start service to San Francisco later this year.
Singapore Airlines (SIA) has reportedly been exploring the Israeli market for a number of years. While the current visitor count between the two countries is somewhat underwhelming, a non-stop flight would stimulate demand in both directions. SIA can tap into its massive hub at Changi Airport and connect passengers to flights throughout Asia and Oceania. Cathay Pacific, a direct rival, has been very successful in the Israeli market. But with the diminishment of the Hong Kong hub as a result of China’s draconian COVID policies, SIA can offer far more in the way of connections as the airline has almost completely resumed its pre-pandemic network.
Tel Aviv could provide an attractive destination for Qantas. The Australian airline has largely resumed all its pre-COVID international routes, including restarting Perth-Rome last month. Critical to success is non-stop service from Sydney or Melbourne, the latter claiming the largest Jewish population in the country and strong ties to the Jewish state. Otherwise, a Perth stop offers little advantage over other existing one-stop connections. El Al and Qantas already operate a code-share agreement facilitating passenger connections between the two countries in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Johannesburg.
Qantas is gearing up for the start of its Project Sunrise which will offer ultra-longhaul flights from the Australian East Coast to New York and London, with other cities coming later. That will require the delivery from Airbus of specially configured A350-1000 aircraft expected to arrive in 2025. But with the opening of Saudi (and Omani) airspace, Tel Aviv is within range of Qantas’ current 787-9 fleet.