Saudi Arabia Launches New Airline

Saudi Arabia has a national airline, Saudia. It’s government-owned. But the government doesn’t like it, or something? Because they’re starting a new government airline, Riyadh Air, and they’re sharing details publicly.

Riyadh Air plans to fly to 100 destinations b 2030, and are about to place a major order, possibly for 100 Boeing widebody aircraft. The former CEO of Etihad, Tony Douglas, will run the airline. His experience is in dismantling state carrier excess, not lighting money on fire for its own sake.

You see, Saudia has a hub in Jeddah and in Riyadh, but is based in Jeddah. This one will clearly be based in Riyadh. That way they’ll have two separate airlines, with the same owner, based about 500 miles apart.

The Current Riyadh Airport

Currently Saudia splits its flying between the two cities. For instance, Saudia flies Washington Dulles – Riyadh three days a week and Washington Dulles – Jeddah four days a week. If you want to connect on Saudia, you need to find a flight that happens to connect in one or the other city on the same day they happen to fly from that city, rather than the other one, to your final destination.

Instead of growing Saudia, they’re starting a new carrier and buying it new planes, in order to compete with themselves. Except the new airline is supposed to be for migrant labor, and visiting friends and relatives in South Asia? Riyadh Air is meant to connect transit passengers from around the world to South Asia and Africa.

  • That’s low yield business, and doesn’t do much for the Saudi economy, since passengers don’t even enter the country.

  • Generally transit passengers help fill excess seats, supporting flights for local traffic.

  • Here those passengers seem to be the goal, growing the country’s connecting traffic more than seven-fold.

But they’re competing already with Emirates, Etihad, Qatar and others – including the government’s own Saudia! – for this business.

Here’s their branding.

And oh, by the way, the bird is a generic falcon, which is a symbol of the country, but I wonder where the idea came from? It’s also used by Gulf Air and used to be part of Etihad’s livery as well. And the R looks similar to Russian carrier Rossiya’s.

If Saudia has a bad brand, or they want to get rid of employees and grow fresh, then shut down Saudia or fold it into a new entity. But they’re going to keep running it too. The country in many ways runs on patronage even under MBS.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I thought somehow I had clicked on OMAAT, and then saw the witty sarcasm and then realized it was Gary writing.
    Keep up the good work. We need more un-whitewashed thoughts that have some humor sprinkled in.

  2. It’s not necessarily stupid. The UAE has Emirates and Etihad. If the 2 Saudi airlines are managed separately, one may prove to be better run. That said, I do not know if Saudi Arabia has a large enough market. At 35 million population, they are larger than Canada or Taiwan but there might not be enough business travel.

  3. KSA doesn’t have to compete with those legacy ME airlines. They are trying to create a new tourism destination and have nearly unlimited money.

  4. Trying to guess Saudi Arabia’s travel logic can be unnerving, just ask Jamal Khashoggi’s wife.

  5. If this “genuinely stupid new airline” will generate large orders to buy new (most likely wide-body) aircraft from Boeing, why complain? 😛

  6. Maybe the new airline will join a different alliance, giving them exposure to a different set of customers around the world. Like when a real estate developer decides to build a Marriott and a Hyatt property on their plot of land. Access to more customers.

  7. Its gonna get even more interesting as theres apparantly a plan for a 3rd dedicated mega airline in the KSA as part of the Neom project to service Neom. Instead of perhaps launching 1 new airline that could share both Riyadh and Neom as hubs nope another hugely stupid airline has to be launched as well! Supposedly 3 government run airlines competing with each other in same country!

  8. It does seem a bit Blazing Saddles idea, kind of a “We don’t like us so we’re going to do something about it.” premise.

  9. I think this airline is about paying off the US by buying Boeing aircraft. It’s the price of getting caught killing a journalist. Nothing else makes sense because otherwise why would you start this completely unworkable, unneeded airline?

  10. @Christian.
    Blazing Saddles? Are they also planning to build a railroad that will go through Rock Ridge?

  11. athe whole point is bringing attention to the modernisation supposedly happening there
    This article is exactly what they want

  12. @Gary – “. . . even under MBS.” Where does the “even” part come in? I’ve seen literally nothing to suggest he’s anything but a monarch like any other monarch. If anything, he’s more careless than his predecessors (e.g. extrajudicial killings of US residents in 3rd countries – I can’t recall a single instance of this by the previous regime).

  13. @Tampa Jim – Not unless you know something we don’t. The analogy was a reference was to arguably the most famous scene in the movie where Cleavon Little holds himself hostage.

  14. I think KSA wants to improve Saudia by pulling the lower cost pax off to another airline. Last week I flew CAI-JED on Saudia and it was an amazing diversity of people on an older A330. It was a late night flight and was completely packed. And as for the smaller KSA population the huge number of Mecca travelers brings a much larger number of people to the Kingdom. Our Saudia flight a couple of days later from JED-DMM was similar in pax.

    There are many reasons this new airline can work that those of us outside the Kingdom don’t recognize

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