Israel's National Airline Goes to High Court Over Saudi Access

(Bloomberg) -- El Al Israel Airlines took the government to court for approving a landmark Air India route over Saudi Arabia that Israel’s flagship carrier can’t compete with.

Air India Ltd. made history last week with the first commercial flight to Israel that crossed the desert kingdom, which hadn’t allowed such overflights before because it has no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. Saudi approval for the New Delhi-Tel Aviv route is a diplomatic coup for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is eager to show warmer ties with Gulf Arab states.

But Saudi Arabia won’t let El Al fly the same route, which is two hours shorter and cheaper than the circuitous path its aircraft must take from south Asia to skirt the kingdom. On Wednesday, it disclosed that it has sued the government and officials including Netanyahu to gain equal access.

The government inflicted “great damage” on Israel’s aviation industry by setting a precedent with Air India that opens the door for other airlines to seek to fly over Saudi Arabia, El Al Chairman Eli Defes said at a news conference in Tel Aviv.

While it’s unlikely the government will rescind Air India’s landing rights, El Al will continue to pressure Netanyahu to obtain access to the shorter route, he added.

El Al earlier this month asked the global aviation regulator to help it secure rights to fly over Saudi Arabia, citing what it called discriminatory treatment by the kingdom against Israeli airlines.

El Al turned down the government’s offer of compensation for lost revenue because consumers would still prefer the shorter flights the carrier can’t provide, Defes said.

Israel’s Transportation Ministry, one of the lawsuit’s targets, said in a statement that while flights to Israel over Saudi Arabia are “a first-rate political achievement,” it is the government’s responsibility “to ensure that El Al will not be harmed as a result of this important step.”

The General Authority of Civil Aviation of Saudi Arabia didn’t reply to requests for comment. Spokesmen for Air India and India’s civil aviation ministry didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

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