The first commercial passenger flight from Abu Dhabi to Israel has touched down in Tel Aviv.
Etihad Airways' inaugural service to the Israeli city departed Abu Dhabi International Airport at 10.13am on Tuesday, bound for Ben Gurion International Airport. It landed at 12.19pm local time, where it was greeted with a traditional water cannon salute.
"Thank you for flying with us on the first commercial passenger flight from Abu Dhabi to Israel," announced the captain as the plane hit the tarmac.
On board was Mohamed Al Khaja, the UAE's first ambassador to Israel, Eitan Na'eh, head of mission at the Embassy of Israel in Abu Dhabi, and Tony Douglas, chief executive of Etihad Airways.
All passengers and crew on the flight were fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
The National was also on board the historic flight.
"Welcome on board," announced the cabin manager on departure. "We are delighted to have you on this special flight."
Following the plane's landing, there was a welcome reception at the airport in Tel Aviv with speeches by Al Khaja, Douglas and Shmuel Zakay, chief executive of Ben Gurion International Airport.
"Today marks the inaugural flight of Etihad Airways from our beloved capital, Abu Dhabi, to Tel Aviv, the flight on which I have arrived to begin my duties as the first ambassador of the UAE to Israel," said Al Khaja.
"Since the signing of the Abraham Accord between Israel and the UAE last summer, the two countries have worked together to embark upon a new and dynamic era of co-operation. From exploring trade and investment opportunities to engaging in culture and people-to-people exchanges, Israel and the UAE have moved swiftly to make the bold vision that first underpinned the accords a reality."
Flight EY598 marks the launch of scheduled services between Abu Dhabi and Israel, with Etihad initially set to operate two flights a week between the cities. Return fares for the flights start at Dh1,195 in economy.
Flights will be operated via a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, with 290 seats: 262 economy and 28 business class. The inaugural service via registered aircraft A6-BLA also operated with eight first class seats. The three-hour-and-20-minute flight was headed by Captain Sulaiman Yaqoobi, pilot in command, accompanied by Captain Abdulla Obaid and First Officer Mansoor Al Hammadi.
"We are humbled and we are honoured that we launched the flight service that connects these two capital cities, given the relationship that has now developed in such a wonderful way, to be able to have that connectivity, to allow people from both cities to visit the other," Douglas told The National.
Israel was added to Abu Dhabi's Green List on Monday, meaning travellers flying into the capital will no longer need to quarantine upon arrival.
As well as connecting with the UAE, passengers travelling from Tel Aviv with Etihad will be able to connect onwards to 35 destinations, including major cities across Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Australia.
One passenger, K Ashkenazi, who works for the Jewish community in Bangkok, was looking for flight options to return to his home town of Tel Aviv.
"I had no idea about this flight," he told The National. "I was thrilled to discover [it]. Today I am only transiting, but next time I would love to tour Abu Dhabi while travelling from Bangkok to Tel Aviv. This is going to benefit all of us."
Douglas says he hopes the frequency of flights will increase in the future.
"We know all around the world there are many travel restrictions in place, but we are very positive that in the coming months we will all get back to the joy of flying while following Covid-19 standards. I think the addition of more countries to Abu Dhabi's Green List is a signal of travel restrictions starting to ease slowly. We are very excited by that."
Is Israel open for tourism?
Israel is currently not open for tourism purposes. Only citizens and those with special exemption can fly into the country where there is also a 14-day quarantine period in place for most travellers.
A recent easing of restrictions on arriving passenger numbers at Ben Gurion International Airport is a positive sign that the country is making progress in managing the coronavirus pandemic.
For now, tourists from the UAE keen to take advantage of Etihad's new services will need to wait a little longer to learn more about Jerusalem's history or to take in Tel Aviv's beaches. But when travel does reopen, the airline anticipates there will be significant demand between Israel and the UAE, for both business and leisure travel purposes.
Both countries rank high for vaccination rates for Covid-19, giving potential for a vaccine corridor to further ease travel between the two destinations.