The Middle East peace process is starting to have a significant effect on the aviation sectors of Israel and Jordan, with Royal Jordanian close to competing directly with El Al and both sides reaching agreement on a joint airport project.

Assuming the fallout from the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin does not derail the drive for stability in the region, El Al will soon face at least indirect competition from Jordan's flag carrier. Royal Jordanian is currently considering offers from 10 Israeli travel agencies to act as the carrier's sales agent. Moreover, the carrier says it is also in the final stages of negotiating a route to Tel Aviv, a few minutes flying time from Amman, as well as overflight rights.

Officials at El Al are understandably concerned by the prospect of Jordanian competition. As Israeli aircraft are forbidden to overfly most Arab countries, flights to many destinations, especially in the Far East, are long and expensive. But Royal Jordanian could offer a significant price and time reduction, which El Al could only compete with if it received overflight clearance from a number of Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

Shauki Abugazala, Royal Jordanian's representative in Israel, dismisses such fears. 'We are not selling ourselves as a cheaper alternative. We are selling our comfort, service and our regular routes to 46 locations in the world.'

Nonetheless, the Israelis are pressing for reciprocal overflight privileges. The transport minister Yisrael Kessar has asked the US government to intervene with Saudi Arabia and claimed earlier this year that Saudi permission was imminent. But those claims now appear to have been premature and Kessar admits: 'I have no idea when Saudi permission might be granted.'

The main sticking point on the Israeli overflight issue is the altitude the Jordanians are requesting. Royal Jordanian wants to fly over Israel at 11,000 feet for cost reasons, but the Israelis are insisting that such low altitude flights would interfere with air force training activities. Kessar is nonplussed by the argument. 'Flying higher would only cost them a few hundred dollars,' he says, 'an insignificant sum compared to the savings.'

The two sides appear to have made more progress on the issue of a new, jointly operated airport to serve the two countries' Red Sea resorts at Eilat and Aqaba. The agreement, announced in early November, envisages each country operating its own terminal. Both sides now have to come up with design and costing proposals, though there is no sign of a completion date. The project is seen as essential by the Israelis, who have almost no tangible economic results to show for the government's peace process, and no shortage of violent opposition at home, as the murder of Rabin proved.

Barry Chamish

Source: Airline Business