A flght from Cairo to Tel Aviv is a 50-minute flight on a clear day.
But if you’ll book your ticket, when you’ll arrive to the airport, probably you’ll not find the gate, because It is not posted on the screen, and so you’ll have to ask someone where to go. Then, when you’ll find the gate there will be no sign that said this is Tel Aviv. Eventually, you’ll jump onto a bus that took you and the other passengers to a far corner of the tarmac, where a small white plane with no markings or logo will waiting for you.
The unmarked plane belong to Air Sinai, which only flies between Cairo and Tel Aviv. In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a historic peace treaty, overseen by the United States, which inaugurated diplomatic relations between the two countries and made Egypt the first Arab nation to recognize the State of Israel.
Air Sinai, founded in 1982, fulfills a term in the treaty that had to be implemented within three years of signing: the two countries must maintain active civilian aviation routes, and this mean there always had to be a direct flight between Israel and Egypt.
But It just didn’t have to be public.
According to Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, the man who oversaw the fulfillment of the treaty terms as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1979 to 1982, all of the Arab world boycotted Egypt after the treaty. This reaction by neighboring countries, plus the general animosity towards Israel among Egyptian citizens, made Egypt reluctant to fly the Cairo-Tel Aviv route publicly on its national carrier, EgyptAir, a leading airline throughout the Arab world.
This led to the creation of Air Sinai, which allowed Egypt to fulfill the terms of the treaty without directly implicating EgyptAir. Air Sinai used EgyptAir pilots, planes, and flight attendants, operating under an agreement that effectively meant no difference between the two airlines, except on paper.
The lack of any external logos on the planes allowed some privacy to the flight, and many have wondered if the Egyptian military keeps tabs on travelers between the two countries.
That reluctance also meant extreme privacy around Air Sinai’s existence: for most of its history, anybody looking online for tickets between Cairo and Tel Aviv would find a host of options for airlines offering indirect flights with stops in places like Amman, Jordan or Istanbul, Turkey. Yes, they might find a few references to a direct flight operated by an airline called Air Sinai, but any attempt to book it would end in a message to call a travel agent or contact the airline directly.
But there is another problem: Air Sinai had no website, no public schedule of flights, and no mechanism for online bookings. There was no number to call. Though the airline had technically been a subsidiary of EgyptAir since 2002, EgyptAir pretended there was no connection.
The only way to book a ticket through Air Sinai was to go through a full-service travel agency or email the company, having found their address through word of mouth. An employee would then ask for a scan of your passport and an international wire transfer to cover the cost of the ticket….
The airline only took cash, and sometimes only took U.S. dollars. For years, before Air Sinai accepted emails and wire transfers, passengers would arrive at the Tel Aviv office with envelopes of cash and leave, with an old-school yellow ticket. This as late as 2010, until passengers have been emailed their flight information. Credit cards were not an option, and still aren’t, when dealing directly with the airline.
Confused passengers have discovered some booking-system workarounds over the years: some said they simply called EgyptAir from the U.S. and kept getting transferred until they found someone who was willing to take their credit card information and issue them tickets. Other passengers have reported booking EgyptAir flights from locations in South Africa, like Cape Town or Johannesburg, and being able to select Tel Aviv as a final destination online, with a stopover in Cairo that transitions flyers to an Air Sinai flight. This was a particularly popular option while it lasted, as most flights to Israel from South Africa require long layovers. However, that option disappeared in 2014, when EgyptAir formally removed Israel from its flight map during the second Gaza war, and dropped all mention of the Tel Aviv location on its website. Interestingly, 2014 is also when Cairo International Airport and Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv began displaying the Air Sinai flight on their public check-in boards…
More recently, in February 2020, flyairsinai.com popped up and, suddenly, anybody had the option to book an Air Sinai flight. Passengers could select any of the daily flights without needing to send emails back and forth to someone in the Air Sinai office, and they could even use credit cards.
A sign of increased warmth between Israel and Egypt? No. The website describes itself as a third-party travel agency only, there is no listed contact information, nor any social media presence. The site and its web developer are based in the United Kingdom and, by all accounts, the planes remain unmarked.
In any case, Egyptian tourism to Israel has always been muted. Travel is also much more difficult for Egyptians, who must obtain an exit visa from the Egyptian government to visit Israel, as well as a visa from the Israeli embassy, which currently has no personnel on the ground in Egypt. Egyptian citizens under a certain age, which for men has ranged from 60 to 45, and for women generally been under 35, require additional clearance, as younger people are considered more of a potential political threat. The Israeli embassy currently notes on its website that any Egyptian man under the age of 50, and Egyptian woman under the age of 35, is unlikely to be approved for a visa quickly.
The one significant change has been in tourism from Coptic Christians: In 2015, Pope Tawadros II, the Pope of the Coptic Church, reversed a ban on visiting Israel which had been issued by his predecessor in the wake of the 1979 peace treaty. Since then, Coptic Christians have visited the religious sites in Israel in ever-increasing numbers. Though Israeli tourism has decreased, it still exists, with Israelis often going incognito about their identity to prevent negative reactions.
Today, Air Sinai continues to serve businesspeople, Coptic travelers, Christian pilgrims, and tourists traveling throughout the Middle East. The new online presence suggests the airline is interested in coming out of hiding. Despite Israeli tourism has not regained the numbers seen in the 1980s and 1990s, the continued existence of Air Sinai serves as a reminder that connections between these two countries remain possible.
Images from web – Google Research