March 28, 2018 / 7:22 AM / in 3 months

Israel's El Al petitions high court against flights via Saudi airspace

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - El Al petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court on Wednesday to restrict any new flights to the country via Saudi airspace until it can also use the shortened route.

FILE PHOTO: An Israeli flag is seen on the first of Israel's El Al Airlines order of 16 Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets, as it lands at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

The flag carrier’s appeal comes a week after Saudi Arabia opened its airspace for the first time to a commercial flight to Israel.

The historic Air India flight last Thursday ended a 70-year flyover ban for jetliners en route to or from Israel, in what many have taken to be a sign of thawing ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Granting an Israeli airline access to its air space would, however, mark a dramatic diplomatic shift.

Saudi Arabia does not recognise Israel and El Al must take a more circuitous path to avoid Saudi Arabia, which it says adds two hours to flight times and increases costs.

El Al has accused its own government, which approved Air India’s new route, of putting it at a disadvantage. It could not evaluate the financial damage to the company as it does not know how many carriers will ultimately fly over Saudi Arabia.

El Al named the Israeli government and Air India in its petition but company officials said they do not expect an immediate halt to Air India’s flights. Rather it is seeking to prevent any new flights using the route.

El Al seeks “to restrict any further expansion of Air India or any other carrier overflying Saudia Arabia,” El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin told Reuters on the sidelines of a news conference.

“We expect the Israeli government to provide any necessary means to grant us either those rights or the restrictions on further expansion.”

However, if the high court ultimately issues an injunction, it could also include Air India’s flights, El Al officials said.

El Al has asked airline industry lobby group International Air Transport Association to help it access Saudi airspace.

El Al’s CEO said IATA agreed this was a “violation of fair and equal rights” but added that it is up to the Israeli government to resolve the issue.

Reporting by Tova Cohen; Editing by Steven Scheer and Louise Heavens

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