When I read the recent news that Etihad Airways had flown directly from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, the first known direct flight between Israel and the UAE, I was reminded of my own recent experience flying on an unmarked plane, painted in white, between an Arabic nation and Ben Gurion Airport. I was optimistic to learn of another “unacknowledged” flight between countries that have begun to cooperate openly after years of poor relations.
My trip began with a plan to combine a visit to a daughter working in Israel with a bucket list trip to Egypt’s pyramids. It seemed we should be able to easily plan a triangle fare with a connection between the two capital cities, but finding a way for a short hop between Cairo and Tel Aviv proved to be elusive. Were the two nations publicly operating such flights? Long hours of overland travel through desert areas with multiple border crossings was not an appealing option. Our challenge ultimately led us to Air Sinai, a little known single-route airline.
Searching for information about such a flight was challenging. My daughter located an Air Sinai office in central Tel Aviv that never seemed to be open, no matter the time of day. Occasional references on tourism sites indicated reservations could not be made through on line booking websites. Searches to sites such as Expedia and alternativeairlines.com pointed to airlines such as Royal Jordanian, Turkish Airways, and others that offered flights with ten to 20 hours of travel requiring stopovers. Bookings were offered by flyairsinai.com, but in small print, it self-identified as a travel agent in the United Kingdom, and not the airline.
Additional research found no mention of Air Sinai on Cairo International Airport’s website; though acknowledged on Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport site, no schedules are available. While Wikipedia indicates that Air Sinai is a “paper airline” of EgyptAir, operating for “political reasons,” I could find no mention of this subsidiary on EgyptAir.com, and Tel Aviv is not an option on its drop down menus for arrivals or departures. Attempts to obtain information from their corporate office went unanswered.
Getting through to someone from EgyptAir by phone was a challenge in itself. I eventually received an email response from customer service suggesting I come to their Broad Street office in New York City to buy a ticket in person. Because I was unable to learn about schedules or seat availability in advance, I had to make this trip more than once when my original dates were not available. What if I didn’t live in the New York metro area?
Eventually flying across the Atlantic, I noticed that Egypt Air’s inflight magazine does not include the Cairo-Tel Aviv route in their list of worldwide destinations or codeshares. Online check in for Air Sinai is not available and there is no Air Sinai counter at the Cairo airport. When we finally were on our way to Tel Aviv, a shuttle bus took us far out on the tarmac where our luggage awaited on the ground by an isolated aircraft without any logos.
I have learned that air travel between the two cities was inaugurated after Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, marking the end of 30 years of hostilities. The treaty called for establishing diplomatic, economic and cultural ties, including flights out of each other’s international airports. In 1980, El Al scheduled passenger flights which continued for three decades until they were suspended in 2011 during the Arab Spring unrest, ultimately ceasing in 2012 citing operational costs and low usage.
Perhaps such secrecy remains because Egypt was reportedly ostracized by other Arab states following the signing of the treaty, and many continue to object to normalization of relations. Evidence of ongoing tensions was forefront in 2019 when Egypt’s president told a 60 Minutes interviewer that his country and Israel were cooperating with intelligence efforts and military coordination against armed groups in the Sinai Peninsula. Aljazeera News reported that such “a potentially damaging acknowledgement” could explain a request by the Egyptian government that the network not air the interview (CBS declined). As a tourist, I couldn’t help noticing on my visit to the Cairo Museum that a map of the region did not identify Israel.
Perhaps unmarked flights are a holdover from the past, despite growing, though not always acknowledged, mutually beneficial cooperation between the two nations. While today’s flight demonstrated global cooperation, delivering aid for Palestinians to combat the coronavirus pandemic (cargo must go through Israel because the Palestinian territory does not have an airport), don’t bother trying to book a flight from Etihad from/to Tel Aviv. You can’t. But let’s hope such efforts across borders will further future relationships and peace in the region.