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  • Steve Jaffe

Latin flavor adds spice to the Israeli aviation market

Since the 1960s, El Al had interest in flying to Buenos Aires, but its plans never came to fruition, partly due to the circuitous routing that would be required. With all of North Africa a no-fly zone to the airline, only two plausible routes existed: south via the Red Sea route to Kenya, then across the continent and crossing the South Atlantic; or west over the Mediterranean, exiting over Spain or the Strait of Gibraltar, and then tacking south over the Atlantic down off the African coast before making the ocean crossing.

The only aircraft with the non-stop range capability of that route was the 747-400, but the challenge in profitably operating it with such a large airplane was daunting. Only with the arrival of the 777-200, a smaller twin-engine aircraft with suitable range capability would South America become an economically viable option.

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 the São Paulo, siting high fuel and security costs. In this case, operational capabilities could not overcome market realities.

Seven years would pass after El Al shut down in South America, Santiago-based LATAM airlines announced that it would begin service on a Santiago – Sao Paulo – Tel Aviv route in December 2018. LATAM, the largest Latin American carrier and one of the world’s top ten operators in volume, has embarked on a strategy of international growth, with recent announcements of new routes to Paris, Lisbon, Johannesburg and Melbourne. Tel Aviv is the carrier’s first destination Middle East. The flight, which operates three times a week, takes 14 hours from Sao Paulo to Tel Aviv, and 15 hours on the return, using a Boeing 787-8. The route avoids African airspace entirely and tracks up the Brazilian northeast, over the Atlantic to southern Portugal and Spain, before arcing toward the southeast over the Mediterranean.

LATAM actual flight track between Sao Paulo and Tel Aviv, December  2018
LATAM actual flight track between Sao Paulo and Tel Aviv, December 2018

The indirect route is due to the lack of clear overflight authority from certain African countries. Two countries stand in the way. Sudan, a long-standing adversary of Israel, has had a change in leadership and is rumored to be open to the possibility of warming relations, if not actual diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. And while Chad does not presently have diplomatic relations with Israel, its president made a state visit to Israel in November 2018 and is expected to reestablish diplomatic ties shortly. Prime Minister Netanyahu recently stated that Israeli airlines could overfly Chad, and “probably” Sudan. While that may be an optimistic view, or mere electioneering, there’s reason for optimism that a direct routing between Tel Aviv and Sao Paulo can soon be established saving two or more hours off the current detour to the north.

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