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  • Steve Jaffe

Israel in Africa -- an Airline Saga

Israel is on the cusp of some major airspace access breakthroughs – to the east over the Arabian Peninsula, and to the south and west over interior Africa. We’ll cover the Arabian story in a separate article – stay tuned.

In the Beginning...

El Al, Israel’s national airline, started flying to Africa shortly after the nation’s creation in 1948, connecting the Jewish state with a vital link to the South African Jewish Community, operating weekly to Johannesburg, with a stop in Nairobi. With all airspace to the south of Israel closed, only a Herculean effort on the part of El Al, via a wildly circuitous route through the only path available -- north over Turkey, then east over then-friendly Iran, southeast until clear of the Arabian peninsula before finally heading southwest toward Kenya. For more on that story, see Airspace Closure and Civil Aviation.

Despite all the political upheavals of recent decades, El Al, has managed to maintain the Johannesburg route. The Nairobi stopover was discontinued in 2002 for security concerns following the failed terrorist attack on an Arkia Airlines 757-300 departing Mombasa. Kenya and Israel enjoy relations, and over the past decade there have been numerous statements regarding imminent restart of that service.

In the summer of 2018, Kenya Airlines announced that it would commence a weekly flight to Tel Aviv, using an Embraer regional jet. Kenyan officials have tried to secure Sudanese overflight for the route, so far to no avail. Both Ethiopian Airlines and El Al skirt Sudan en route from Tel Aviv to Addis Ababa and Johannesburg, respectively, requiring only a minimal detour. Kenya Airlines could easily do the same, flying over Ethiopia and Eritrea, then up the Red Sea to Israel – adding a mere 32 statute miles to the trip. It’s unclear why the airline seems determined to secure a route over Sudan. If unable to budge Khartoum on this, we will see if Kenya Airways launches the service, operating on the same route as El Al and Ethiopian.

actual flight track Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv
Addis Ababa -- Tel Aviv route as operated by Ethiopian Airlines

airline routes from Nairobi to Tel Aviv
Nairobi -- Tel Aviv routing: Direct Great Circle route overflying Sudan, and detour via Eritrea

Meanwhile, upstart RwandAir, is rapidly expanding, leveraging the political stability and economic growth taking place in its home country. The Kigali-based airline recently announced its intention to start service to Israel in 2019. Should both Kenya Airways and RwandAir, they would join Ethiopian Airlines competing for traffic to East Africa and connecting to points across the continent.

A major aero-political goal of Jerusalem is to open a more direct air corridor between Israel and South America. In May 2009, El Al launched its first-ever scheduled service to South America, with non-stop service from Tel Aviv to São Paulo with a 777-200. The flight tracked west over the Mediterranean before heading south-southwest over the Atlantic. Scheduled block time was 15 hours and 10 minutes on the westbound flight, just 20 minutes less than El Al’s longest scheduled flight, Tel Aviv–Los Angeles, which is nearly 1,000 miles greater in distance, but is a route in which El Al can fly a nearly direct great circle route. But after just two years of service, El Al withdrew from São Paulo, siting high fuel and security costs. In this case, operational capabilities could not overcome market realities.

Actual track flown LATAM from Sao Paulo to Tel Aviv
Sao Paulo -- Tel Aviv route as flown by LATAM

Great Circle route between Sao Paulo and Tel Aviv
Great Circle route between Sao Paulo and Tel Aviv

The route remained dormant until December 2018, when LATAM inaugurated 787 service on a Santiago – Sao Paulo – Tel Aviv service. Lacking overflight permission from Sudan, the LATAM flight tracks the same route used by El Al

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu achieved a significant breakthrough with the recent mutual visits of Chadian president Idriss Deby and Netanyahu to each others’ capitals, re-establishing diplomatic relations between to two countries since Chad was pressured by the Arab bloc to break ties with the Jewish state in 1972.

With the airspace of Egypt and Chad now open to Israeli airlines, all that’s needed for a direct routing onward over Nigeria (with which Israel enjoys close relations) is to cut the northwest corner of Sudan. Once viewed as almost a client state of Iran, Sudan broke relations with the Islamic Republic in 2016. Ever since, Jerusalem has been actively lobbying Khartoum to normalize ties. Netanyahu claimed in December 2018 that he believed Sudan’s airspace was now open to Israel – reports that were quickly denied by Khartoum.

But Israel was able to claim a small, but significant victory, when Prime Minister Netanyahu’s return flight from N’djamena was allowed to overfly South Sudan en route to Israel. While South Sudan and Israel maintain friendly relations, its airspace is controlled by Khartoum.

actual air route flow Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to N'djemena, Chad
The long way around -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s flight to N’djamena, Chad, via Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, before entering Chad (January 2019)

Caption: The long way around -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s flight to N’djamena, Chad, via Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, before entering Chad.

Prime Minister Netanhayu's return flight from N'djamena, Chad flying over South Sudan
And on the return flight, cutting a corner by flying over South Sudan – a first for an Israeli airline

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