In a year defined by geopolitical tension, cultural discord, and the devastating human and economic impacts of Covid-19, any positive example of cooperation and detente comes as a welcome respite.

Thus the overflight agreement between the Kingdom of Jordan and State of Israel at the tail end of the annus horribilis that was 2020, which allows for flights to cross over both countries’ airspace, is welcome news for travellers, the environment and the aviation sector in the wake of the pandemic.

Airlines have historically flown around Israel when flying east/west over Middle East airspace due to geopolitical tensions that have persisted, despite diplomatic ties between the two countries having been maintained since they signed a peace agreement – known as the Wadi Araba Treaty – in 1994.

The direct routing will on average cut 106km eastbound and 118km westbound on flights operating from the Gulf States and Asia to destinations in Europe and North America. The agreement follows another positive development; the recent improvement of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, as well as the opening of Saudi Arabian airspace to Israeli-Gulf flights.

“Following the normalisation of relations between states, the Kingdom of Jordan Civil Aviation Authority requested through IATA AME office facilitation of a coordination meeting with Israel to review airspace connectivity between the two States,” explains Muhammad Al Bakri, IATA’s regional VP for Africa and the Middle East. “IATA AME facilitated the meeting, hosted by Eurocontrol to work with the states to effect the required changes to reconnect the routings, and permit overflights.

“The collaborative effort was not without input from the airline operators that could potentially benefit from the connectivity.”

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The Jordan/Israel agreement: benefits for airlines and passengers

Those potential benefits include shortened flight times – aircraft have previously had to depart from optimum flight paths by flying through Iran and Turkey to the north or Sinai in the south – reduced fuel burn and CO2 emissions, and the potential for new routes, a plus for operators and passengers.

“Based on the number of eligible departure airports, the agreement will result in a saving of 155 days of flying time a year”

“The connecting of the airspace between Jordan and Israel is welcome news for travellers, the environment and the aviation industry, during these very difficult times,” says Al Bakri. “The direct routing will cut return passenger journey times by about 20 minutes and reduce CO2 emissions. Airlines will also save on fuel costs, which will help as they struggle to survive the effects of the pandemic.”

According to IATA, based on the number of eligible departure airports, the agreement will result in a saving of 155 days of flying time a year. If the number of eligible departure airports is increased, and air traffic reach pre-Covid-19 levels, the result will be a saving of 403 days of flying time per annum.

Al Bakri also points to the ‘solidarity and stability’ agreement that will see Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt reopen their respective air, land and sea borders with Qatar.

The agreement paves the way for commercial airlines to resume regional connectivity, which will shorten flight times and provide essential air links to families and businesses across the region.

“The reopening of airspace with Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt is welcome news for the region, passengers and the aviation industry,” he says. “It will permit the resumption of direct flights between these countries and Qatar, eliminating complex transit travel itineraries that saw typical journey times increase from under an hour to more than five hours in some cases.”


Sustainable skies: the environmental benefits explained

The sustainability stats are also encouraging. Based on the number of eligible departure airports, the historic agreement between Israel and Jordan to allow flights to cross each countries’ airspace will result in an annual reduction in CO2 emissions of approximately 87,000t, according to IATA. This is equivalent to taking nearly 19,000 passenger vehicles off the road for a year.

Should the number of eligible departure airports increase, and air traffic reach pre-Covid-19 levels, an annual reduction in CO2 emissions of approximately 202,000t could be achieved, which equates to taking nearly 44,000 passenger vehicles off the road for one year, an impressive figure.

“Allowing flights to cross each countries’ airspace will result in an annual reduction in CO2 emissions of approximately 87,000t”

However, some green activists continue to argue that freight and consumer air travel is incompatible with global environmental targets, and that the post-Covid-19 recovery should necessarily favour – and incentivise – low-carbon alternatives such as rail over air and road travel. How does IATA respond?

“People should be concerned about the environmental impact of all industries, and that includes aviation” states Al Bakri. “However, they need to be reassured of aviation’s commitment to sustainability. Aviation has been driving climate action for over a decade. We committed to improving fuel efficiency by an average of 1.5% annually between 2009 and 2020 – we are achieving 2.3%.

“We also committed to carbon-neutral growth from 2020. The ICAO Assembly confirmed its resolve to make a success of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). It is the global measure that will enable us to work towards capping the growth in CO2 from aviation and generate $40bn in climate funding. In addition, we are committed to cutting our net emissions to half 2005 levels by 2050, in line with the 2°C goal outlined in the Paris Agreement.”

“Aviation is not the enemy, carbon is,” he adds. “Connecting people and trade globally is a great achievement that makes our world a better place.”


Forward thinking: commercial aviation and Covid-19

Could the accord between Jordan and Israel pave the way for similar agreements and benefits elsewhere? Israeli Transport Minister Miri Regev, for example, has been upbeat, saying that the government is “breaking new boundaries”, and that the country is “increasingly integrating”.

“We are opening up new means of transport, economic and political co-operation with countries that share similar borders and interests with us, and share the vision of regional peace,” she said.

“Air cargo has been a vital partner in the global fight against the Covid-19 pandemic”

Al Bakri is also positive about the future of commercial aviation, despite the challenges, highlighting the vital role that the industry continues to play as a supplier of critical Covid-19 vaccines worldwide.

“Geopolitical tensions are present across the world, and this has a direct impact on flight operations, the availability of airspace, routes and ability to connect,” he says. “However, the aforementioned ‘solidarity and stability’ agreement opens the door for quarantine-free travel corridors that will allow families and friends in the region to reconnect and businesses trade more easily, as well as facilitate the transportation of Covid-19 vaccines globally, given the region’s strategic location.

“The Covid-19 crisis has served to highlight the importance of aviation to our society. Throughout, air cargo has been a vital partner in the global fight against the pandemic, delivering essential medical equipment and protective PPE material and now vaccines that transportation via road, rail or sea could not achieve.”