Flying from Israel to Australia: The geopolitics of visiting family - opinion

If there were once two prerequisite stops, and more recently a single transit point, flying to Melbourne may soon involve a zero-stopover journey.

 THE ABRAHAM ACCORDS have revolutionized Asian travel for Israelis, with Dubai International Airport acting as a major hub for destinations in Asia and beyond. Now being able to fly through Arab airspace affords the traveling public short flight times and multiple choices of carriers and routes. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
THE ABRAHAM ACCORDS have revolutionized Asian travel for Israelis, with Dubai International Airport acting as a major hub for destinations in Asia and beyond. Now being able to fly through Arab airspace affords the traveling public short flight times and multiple choices of carriers and routes.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Every year, over the summer, I try to visit my hometown of Melbourne, Australia, to see my mother, now 89. I also visit my three siblings, each with their own families. 

While most people may view this sort of trip as an opportunity to disengage from day-to-day professional pursuits, I find that impossible. For unlike Anglo-Israelis from the US, Canada, Britain and South Africa, my annual family visits have always been significantly impacted by geopolitical realities. 

In the 1980s, when I first moved to Israel, it was impossible to fly directly east to Australia. Diplomatic hostility toward the Jewish state dictated that all flights to and from Ben-Gurion Airport were barred from passing through Arab airspace. Absurdly, one had to first fly west to a European city, and only from there traverse the Middle East for Asia and Australia.

After a year of serving in the army as a lone soldier, I received the IDF’s permission to visit my parents abroad (the sabras in my platoon were very jealous). The flight path to Melbourne had me traveling from Tel Aviv to Rome, some 3.5 hours in the wrong direction, before flying east and south to Melbourne on a 21-hour flight, with a brief stopover in Asia for refueling. The reverse was incurred on the return route, including a forced eight-hour Italian respite. 

El Al plane (credit: ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS)El Al plane (credit: ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS)

The geopolitics had not changed when a few years later I took my sabra wife to see my birthplace and to meet the extended family. Somehow, she survived the experience, perhaps since this time we transited through Athens – only two hours from Ben-Gurion Airport – instead of Rome, before our 20-hour journey to Melbourne.

WHEN I started working for the Foreign Ministry in the early 1990s, the geopolitical challenges of flying became even more complicated. Travel paid by the public purse had to be on routes approved by the relevant security authorities. All flights departing Europe for Asia and Australia that crossed over the Middle East were off-limits. The fear was that a technical malfunction or a passenger’s medical emergency could force the airplane to land in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Iran, where an Israeli official could find themselves in a precarious situation. 

Accordingly, in 1991, when I took up my first diplomatic posting at the Israeli Consulate in Hong Kong, I had to travel 4.5 hours from Tel Aviv to Copenhagen, stay overnight, and from there fly another 14.5 hours to my Asian destination – a roundabout route that had the singular blessing of those responsible for my safety. 

New flight options following Israel's strengthened ties with China, India

The mid-1990s saw political and economic momentum that improved my annual travel arrangements. The upgrading of Israel’s diplomatic relations with China and India, the expansion of economic ties with Asia, and the need to service the tens of thousands of Israelis who now flocked to the continent’s tourist hot spots, resulted in El Al introducing new routes to the east.

Amazingly, you could now fly from Israel nonstop to a host of Asian destinations, including Bangkok, Mumbai, Hong Kong and Beijing. My family visits to Melbourne no longer required a stopover in the opposite direction, and I now had a choice of routes, usually alternating between transits in either Hong Kong or Bangkok.

Despite these advances, geopolitics still negatively impacted my journey. Arab airspace remained closed for flights to and from Israel, compelling wide detours on El Al’s Asia routes. For example, instead of flying directly east to reach Beijing, El Al would fly west to the Mediterranean, north until Turkey, and then turn east, entering China from the north via Russia – adding over two hours to the trip. 

It was the same if Bangkok was your destination. Rather than flying directly, the aircraft would adopt a southbound course, pass over Eilat, and continue along the Red Sea toward Africa until reaching the Gulf of Aden, where it would finally turn east. This flight path, which scrupulously avoided Saudi and Yemini airspace, added an additional 2.5 hours to the trip.

The geopolitical developments of the second decade of this century changed the situation for the better. In the years leading up to the Abraham Accords, ties with the Arab Gulf countries were moving in a positive direction, while simultaneously, Israel-India relations were mushrooming. 

Abraham Accords opens Arab skies to Israeli flights

Unprecedentedly, in March 2018, an international carrier, Air India, received permission to transit the air space of Saudi Arabia and Oman on all its flights to and from Ben-Gurion Airport.

This breakthrough gave Air India a distinct competitive advantage over the Israeli carriers. For while El Al’s pre-COVID Tel Aviv-Delhi flight (involving the Gulf of Aden detour) took close to eight hours, Air India flew it in under six. 

In 2020, the signing of the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain revolutionized Asian travel for Israelis. Dubai International Airport is a major hub for destinations across Asia and beyond, and the Gulf airlines, Emirates and Etihad, enjoy a strong global presence. Not only was it possible to fly directly over Arab airspace, but the traveling public was given multiple choices of carriers and routes.  

US PRESIDENT Joe Biden’s July 2022 visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia brought further progress. Riyadh announced a policy change that enables Israeli airliners to fly over Saudi airspace to destinations in Asia. If Oman follows suit, as many now expect, El Al will be able to utilize the direct flight paths that had hitherto been reserved for international carriers.  

For Israelis visiting Australia, this was especially welcome news. El Al revealed that the opening of Arab airspace made feasible a direct 15-hour Tel Aviv-Melbourne route. If there were once two prerequisite stops, and more recently a single transit point, flying to Melbourne may soon involve a zero-stopover journey.

I first visited Israel from Australia as a teenager in the 1970s. Back then, my three-leg journey had me flying from Melbourne to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Tehran, and Tehran to Tel Aviv. The last section of the trip had me departing the Iranian capital for Israel on El Al’s regular LY112 flight (the 1979 Islamic Revolution shut that route down). 

El Al will not be starting flights to the Imam Khomeini International Airport anytime soon, but the geopolitical changes have progressively made visiting Australia easier. And given the pace of Arab-Israel normalization, who knows how I will fly next year to Melbourne for my mother’s 90th birthday?

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.