Flag carrier

A couple of months late (sorry about that), here’s news of the latest Middle East aviation start-up – or perhaps that should be restart-up.

After many years of inaction, Palestinian Airlines have begun flying again – just one route for now, linking the West Bank and Gaza. However, since neither territory has a functioning airport, planes actually fly between Al-Arish airport in Egypt and Amman Marka airport in Jordan.

This makes no sense for tourists, but perfect sense for Palestinians, many of whom are prohibited from entering Israel or travelling via Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport: their only access-point for Gaza is the Egyptian border post at Rafah (50km from Al Arish), and their only access-point for the West Bank is the Jordanian border post at Allenby/King Hussein Bridge (70km from Amman).

The flights, in a 48-seat Fokker 50 turboprop donated by the Dutch government, don’t have permission to cross Israeli air space, so they must take an hour and a half to fly the long way round, doubling the direct flight time.

Once upon a time, Palestinian Airlines had a thriving operation, based at its hub of Yasser Arafat international airport in Gaza (which hosted US president Bill Clinton in 1998). It used to shuttle tens of thousands of passengers around the Middle East, with plans to expand into Europe. Then the Al-Aqsa Intifada began in 2000, and the Israeli army ripped up the Gaza runway shortly thereafter. Gaza airport remained open – here are stories from 2005 and 2006 about it – even though it had no runway and no planes. During that time Palestinian Airlines flew from Al-Arish, but those flights ended in 2005 when the Gaza-Egypt border was sealed, first by Israel, then subsequently by Egypt.

It took the revolutionary ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 for Egypt to reopen its border with Gaza, allowing Palestinians to travel (albeit with some restrictions). This has prompted the airline to restart operations – though, at the time of writing (Aug 2012), Egyptian air strikes in the area around Al-Arish have probably halted flights yet again.

But just the fact of trying is significant. There are some places left where “flag-carrier” still means something.