Sudan, Tigray, and the importance of strategic airspace redundancy
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
On Sunday, November 8, El Al flight 5057 flew over Sudan en route from Tel Aviv (TLV) to Entebbe (EBB). The 737-900, which was heading south to pick up a load of Ugandan agricultural trainees, was hailed by the press as the first “commercial” Israeli airliner to get permission to overfly Sudan. It wasn’t. That title belonged to an El Al 787 returning from Buenos Aires (EZE) that flew over Sudan and Egypt on the way back to Tel Aviv last June. But it was the first Israeli commercial flight to overfly that country since the historic announcement of a move toward normalization between the two formerly hostile countries just a few weeks ago.
But the significance lies far beyond that. Sudan remained the last major airspace stumbling block for direct routings between Israel and Central Africa and South America. Other African countries have gradually opened – or re-opened – their airspace. An agreement was reached with Chad with the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel last year. While the North African countries (other than Egypt) remain off-limits for now, Israeli airliners can operate competitive routings on scheduled or charter operations to the south and west that were previously economically challenged due to the longer routings.
El Al operated 3x weekly non-stop 777-200LR service between Tel Aviv (TLV) and Sao Paulo (GRU) from 2009 to 2011. But while popular with business and leisure travelers, the route was never profitable. The 777 was too big to fill with sufficiently high yields, fuel prices soared, and the two and a half extra hours required to skirt the bulge of Africa didn’t help. In a post-COVID environment, El Al might be able to make a go of the route with the smaller, more fuel-efficient 787, and most importantly with a shorter direct route over Sudan and the rest of the continent.
African airlines flying to Israel face the same hurdles. Ethiopian Airlines, which has operated Addis Ababa (ADD) – Tel Aviv service for years, normally tracks north from ADD, continuing over Eritrea and up the Red Sea toward Israel. Rwandair inaugurated service from Kigali (KGL) to TLV in June 2019, although the flights were halted with the rise of COVID-19. And for the past few years, Kenya Airways had indicated its intention to start flights to Israel.
All these routes – ADD, KGL, and NBO – can operate efficiently and safely over Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Red Sea. It’s a bit of a detour for Rwandair and Kenya Airways – but not much. Ironically, Kenya Airways had reported that it was holding out for route authority over Sudan, which it had not yet obtained. It didn’t make much sense at the time, because it would only save a few minutes flight time – but maybe they knew something we didn’t.
Perhaps the flight operations folks at Kenya Airways anticipated what is happening now – the closure of airspace in northern Ethiopia, where an actual shooting war has broken out between the central government and a provincial rebel group known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF has widened the conflict by reportedly shelling Asmara – the capital of neighboring Eritrea. The Ethiopian Air Force is heavily engaged in military operations over Tigray. Civil aviation authorities of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan have issued safety warnings in the form of NOTAMs and have closed affected airways. The Safe Airspace organization has issued a warning to all operators urging the avoidance of additional airspace around the conflict zone.
European airlines operating to the region are steering clear of the area, staying well to the west over Sudan. Ethiopian has adjusted its routing to avoid the Tigray region on the TLV route by tracking northeast before turning northwest over the Red Sea coast. But there is a significant risk of the hostilities broadening into outright international warfare, bringing Eritrea into the conflict. That could easily expand the conflict zone, increasing the risk of all airspace over Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, and bordering regions of Sudan. And hence, the importance of the ability to use Sudanese airspace to the west as a safety valve.
Israeli airlines have, through the years, operated to destinations in Eastern and Southern Africa including Addis Ababa, Nairobi (NBO), Mombasa (MBA), and Johannesburg (JNB). While none of those routes are currently being flown (most suspended due to COVID-19), some will return in the post-pandemic recovery. And South America flights could be back on El Al’s agenda now that it has the right aircraft and can fly and efficient routings.
The two events – the opening of Sudanese airspace – and the current conflict in Tigray, highlight the critical importance of what I will call strategic airspace redundancy. Airlines operating to and from Israel need buffer zones – or additional airspace availability -- to reroute for the avoidance of airspace closures that can occur with little prior warning. There are several recent examples in the Middle East of conflict-driven airspace closure and the need for airspace redundancy – the Qatari blockade, conflicts in Libya and Yemen, and various flare-ups in the Sinai, and of course, the ongoing crisis in Syria. More on that in a subsequent post.