Israeli national carrier El Al made history today, operating its first ever flight between Tel Aviv, Israel and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The 737-900ER performing flight LY971 took 3 hours 17 minutes to complete the 2,110 kilometer journey. It’s a historic flight for the airline but also for Israel and the UAE, as it marks the beginning of a thawing of relations between the two nations.

LY971 Tel Aviv Abu Dhabi
Today’s flight path from Tel Aviv (TLV) to Abu Dhabi (AUH)

Israel and the UAE have normalized diplomatic relations after having none to speak of, and have now embarked on the process of deepening ties. That’s a controversial move in the eyes of some in the region given the decades of hostility between Israel and many of its neighbors. The El Al flight acted as a symbol – of the possibility to move beyond those hostilities, or at least to begin the process. In a nod to that fact, the outbound flight number 971 is the international dialing code for the UAE, while the return will carry the Israeli code 972.

This particular 737 had been grounded since the early days of the pandemic, and was brought back into service specifically for this. The only other flight it completed in recent days was a half-hour test loop from and to Tel Aviv – no doubt in preparation for this flight which carried delegations from the US and Israel, journalists and others.

El Al Israel Tel Aviv test flight Abu Dhabi
The recent test loop performed by El Al’s 737-900ER 4X-EHD, after being pulled from storage.

The start of commercial service?

This was not a commercial flight as it wasn’t possible for just anyone to buy a ticket, despite it being operated by a standard commercial plane. It wasn’t even the first flight between the two cities – Etihad Airways recently sent two planes to Tel Aviv carrying cargo. Those flights were clearly a precursor to this, the first flight carrying passengers and the first by El Al. For now there are no regular commercial flights in the schedules between Israel and the UAE, but officials no doubt have plans to start some.

Saudi Arabian airspace

A nonstop flight operating between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is newsworthy regardless of its routing. But one of the most fascinating things about this flight was the fact that it overflew Saudi Arabian airspace. That’s normally a no-go for El Al, and even for other carriers headed to or from Israel. There have only been a handful of exceptions to this. Being able to fly through Saudi airspace made for a much more direct route – routing any other way would have added considerable flight time. The fact that it flew over Saudi Arabia also gives an indication of regional buy-in for this normalization of relations, no doubt an important message to send for those involved.

Anti-missile technology

El Al is famous for not messing around when it comes to security and it’s being reported that one reason they used a 737 on this flight was that the fleet is outfitted with a missile defense system. In contrast, its flagship 787 Dreamliners do not have the system. For those who are curious, the missile defense system is from Israeli defense supplier Elbit Systems, and it’s called C-MUSIC.

Israel and the UAE say they’ll now proceed to sign various bilateral agreements to build up trade, tourism and more. They’ll also open embassies in each other’s territories. So is this the beginning of regular commercial service between Israel and the Gulf? We’ll have to wait and see. At the very least it’s a big step in that direction.

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