Riyadh Air CEO Makes Some Unbelievable Claims

Riyadh Air CEO Makes Some Unbelievable Claims

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I’ve written extensively about Riyadh Air, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious new airline, which is planning to launch operations in Q2 2025. The airline is part of Saudi Arabia’s goal of greatly boosting tourism to the country, and also of increasingly putting Riyadh on the map as a global business hub.

For a moment, let’s forget the politics of Saudi Arabia, and the question of whether Saudi Arabia can actually become a tourism hotspot. Riyadh Air has done an incredible job hiring talent, and has some brilliant ex-pats at the airline who really know what they’re doing.

Riyadh Air CEO Tony Douglas previously ran Etihad, and as you’d expect, he has quite a task. In addition to leading the airline to launch, he has been on a never-ending press circuit, creating hype around the airline. However, I can’t help but stop for a moment and reflect on some of the stuff he’s saying, because it’s giving me very strong Akbar Al Baker vibes (which is not otherwise his vibe, and it’s also why I’m confused).

Riyadh Air CEO promises the world’s best experience

Tony Douglas recently participated in the Skift Global Forum 2023 in Dubai, and was interviewed about the carrier’s launch plans. Riyadh Air doesn’t plan to have first class, which might surprise some people, given how common bling is in the Middle East.

He was asked if not offering first class was a conscious decision, and he provided the following (reasonable) explanation:

“It was a very conscious decision, and it’s driven by financial sustainability, as well as environmental sustainability. First class on many carriers is a charitable affair. What I mean by that is my father taught me when I was very young that any fool can sell $100 for $50.”

“First class for many international carriers is an egotistical, charitable act, which is not commercially sustainable. It’s $100 for $50, and the reason why is because it’s often 2.5x the real estate of business class, but you don’t sell it for 2.5x the ticket price. So by definition, it’s $100 for $50. We will not do that, because we’re not a registered charity.”

He follows that up by teasing the carrier’s upcoming cabins, which will be revealed in Q2 2024. He then made the following claims about what Riyadh Air has planned for business class, premium economy, and economy:

  • “Our business — I’d like to think you will conclude — is better than just about anyone’s first class out there”
  • “When you see our premium economy, I’d like to think most of you will conclude that’s better than just about anyone’s business class that you’ll see out there”
  • “Most importantly, when you see our economy, I think you’ll probably conclude that’s better than just about anyone’s premium economy out there”

He went on to draw parallels between the carrier’s livery and inflight product. He explains how Riyadh Air’s livery “looks more like a billionaire’s G700 than a regular commercial aviation livery,” and that a similar theme will continue within the aircraft.

I do love Riyadh Air’s livery!

He then adds how the airline “won’t have cabin crew uniforms either,” but rather Riyadh Air will “have cabin crew fashion, and wait till you see the fashion that we have.”

You can watch the interview for yourself below. The part mentioned above starts at roughly the 15-minute mark.

I can appreciate wanting to create hype, but…

I can of course appreciate the value in building brand awareness before a company launches operations, and wanting to create intrigue. We see more of this than ever before, with every company creating a “waitlist” before launch for “early access” to something that ostensibly isn’t in terribly limited supply.

I believe that Riyadh Air intends to offer a top notch inflight experience, that will be competitive with the best products out there. However, the claims being made are counterproductive, if you ask me, and will almost certainly lead to disappointment. It’s especially interesting how Douglas frames this — he doesn’t claim that he thinks the cabins will be so good, but rather he thinks that we’ll conclude that.

I really respect Douglas, but I’m confused as to whether he actually believes what he’s saying, and if so, what his reference point is:

  • Riyadh Air’s business class will be better than any first class out there? Will these be suites in a 1-1-1 configuration with floor to ceiling doors?
  • Riyadh Air’s premium economy will be better than any business class out there? Will premium economy consist of fully flat beds with doors?
  • Riyadh Air’s economy will be better than any premium economy out there? Will economy have 40″ of pitch, and be in a 2-3-2 configuration?
Starlux business class or Riyadh Air premium economy?

While a lot of airline executives make questionable claims, the only other person I’ve seen who takes matters this far is former Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker. He was once asked by a reporter if the airline was considering adding premium economy, to which he responded that there was no need for this, as Qatar Airways’ economy is already better than premium economy on other airlines. That’s patently false.

Etihad first class or Riyadh Air business class?

I’d love to be proven wrong, and for what Douglas is saying to be true. However, ironically that contradicts the whole point that Douglas has been making about Riyadh Air’s business model:

  • There’s huge demand for travel to & from Riyadh, and the market is currently underserved
  • Riyadh Air is a business and not a charity, and offering products like first class isn’t profitable, since it takes up so much space
  • So then how can you claim for it to be economically viable to have an economy that’s better than premium economy, a premium economy that’s better than business class, and a business class that’s better than first class?
ITA premium economy or Riyadh Air economy?

Bottom line

Riyadh Air is just over a year from launching, and I’m excited to see what the airline has in store. I have a lot of respect for the management team at the airline, and I trust they’ll come up with something innovative. However, as I’ve watched CEO Tony Douglas doing the media circuit, I’ve been hearing an increasing number of claims that are just fantastical in nature.

Douglas really took it to the next level during a recent interview, where he claimed that business class, premium economy, and economy, will all be better than virtually any other product out there that’s one cabin up.

I’m not sure what exactly Douglas’ strategy is here. If what he’s saying is true, it defies logic and economics. And if what he’s saying isn’t true, then he’s just setting consumers up for disappointment when the cabins are actually revealed.

What’s your take on the claims being made by Riyadh Air’s CEO?

Conversations (35)
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  1. PaulH Guest

    I don't know what kind of tourism Saudi Arabia is expecting to boost, Most Americans will be in violation of the country's modesty standards the minute they step off the plane and will be met with, by Western standards, a repressive and conservative society. Unless they relax sone rules in "safe" zones, like Turkey. Anyone been there recently!

  2. Adil Guest

    Riyadh (the city) has a strategic location for transit passengers similar to Dubai, Doha and others but with more to offer. It might not be the wisest choice not to consider transit traffic as a major revenue stream. Quite surprised to his comments about seating classes and the business model with no FC. That does not add up I think.

  3. James Smith Guest

    What wonders did he create at Etihad Airways? Let’s search for those first before taking his tall claims seriously.

  4. frrp Diamond

    Thats cos everyone in that area is full of crap and just makes things up.

    You know their premium is going to be as bad as all premiums and their business class will be a standard business class, and their first class will be sold at the same prices as everyone elses or they wont sell any seats other than to sheiks who will be going thru their alcohol supply.

  5. Andy Diamond

    Oh well, the usual marketing jargon … „better than just about anyone‘s ..“ leaves room for better experiences with a few other airlines. Yet, to be better than LH‘s (old but for many years still operating) business class is achievable. Better than a 29‘ or 31’ pitch in Economy doesn‘t require a 40‘ pitch, a 32‘ one will be better than what most airlines offer.

  6. IrishAlan Diamond

    Assuming they’re going to need a good connecting base with only some O&D traffic, all they need is to make things better to be competitive.
    I wonder if they could pull from an old angle-flat J design and use it to make a leading premium Y. That would be class leading.
    They just need something slightly better than QSuitr to be class leading.

  7. Luke Guest

    If this new premium economy product beats qsuites HARD product and sells for fares competitive to other airlines premium economy, THAT is a charitable act which I might bite on for good deals

  8. Ross Guest

    Where is Riyadh going to fly? Maybe you could have mentioned that. If it is flying routes comparable to intra-European, then maybe he's comparing it to that first class.

    1. ConcordeBoy Diamond

      Except that almost no one but USAmericans refer to a non lie-flat shorthaul offering as "first class." Clearly not what he meant.

  9. Bubba Guest

    It's not hyperbole if couched in so many weasel words. Remember, every word signifies its contrary as well. And here, as Ben pointed out, he's starting with "I think that", and following up with "you will conclude", often with a further qualification "most of you". Then it's never "best in class", but "better than" "just about" everyone. And the more he slides down to the back of the plane, the less he thinks his audience...

    It's not hyperbole if couched in so many weasel words. Remember, every word signifies its contrary as well. And here, as Ben pointed out, he's starting with "I think that", and following up with "you will conclude", often with a further qualification "most of you". Then it's never "best in class", but "better than" "just about" everyone. And the more he slides down to the back of the plane, the less he thinks his audience "you" will be convinced that the product is above average.
    I think most of you will conclude that Riyadh Air's product will be almost as good as just about any established ME carrier.

    They're not wild claims: he has his sights pretty low.

  10. Manage Expectations Guest

    This is exactly what happened to Starlux in the Taiwan market. It kept marketing and advertising itself that it would be the Emirates (Taiwan has a luxurious image of Emirates) of Taiwan, and better than Singapore Airlines. When its first class made a press release, the general feedback in Taiwan was “premium business.” If they didn’t set the expectation of the public so high, the press release probably would have wow-ed everyone, given that their...

    This is exactly what happened to Starlux in the Taiwan market. It kept marketing and advertising itself that it would be the Emirates (Taiwan has a luxurious image of Emirates) of Taiwan, and better than Singapore Airlines. When its first class made a press release, the general feedback in Taiwan was “premium business.” If they didn’t set the expectation of the public so high, the press release probably would have wow-ed everyone, given that their interior design was indeed more attractive than Eva Air.

  11. Malc Diamond

    Gulf Arabs are hyperbole-prone people. It's just how they speak. If Douglas wasn't overhyping their airline, his employers would think he's not doing his job. Regarding the point-to-point aspect, that is patent nonsense. They're just unwilling to acknowledge at this stage that they're going head-to-head with the other ME carriers. Lastly, as has been discussed many times before on this blog, of course they'll offer alcohol; they just haven't announced it yet (most likely they'll...

    Gulf Arabs are hyperbole-prone people. It's just how they speak. If Douglas wasn't overhyping their airline, his employers would think he's not doing his job. Regarding the point-to-point aspect, that is patent nonsense. They're just unwilling to acknowledge at this stage that they're going head-to-head with the other ME carriers. Lastly, as has been discussed many times before on this blog, of course they'll offer alcohol; they just haven't announced it yet (most likely they'll announce it when they alert their population that the Red Sea project will have a special dispensation to offer alcohol).

    1. simmonad Guest

      Regarding point-to-point, I take the same view. If Riyadh Air has enough routes and frequencies, then people will use RUH for transit, in spite of the airline's stated objectives.

  12. Guest28 Guest

    Sadly, as a Syrian American… it’s hard to feel 100% safe transiting through Saudi, let alone going there as a tourist.

  13. Hank Wakai Guest

    They recruited a CEO with a track record of specializing in launching money splurge ego airlines. That says it all, and is clearly their intention. In other news ... Etihad seems on the road to recovery

  14. observer Guest

    If they hired Etihad guy to run the airline then it’s clearly targeted towards Middle Eastern clientele. I have flown on both First Classes several times and also happened to have stayed in DC area hotel where were Etihad crew stays for more than a year. Nothing on board or on land makes me believe that airline has hired for western markets. Emirates on the other hand seems to have heavily hired from places like...

    If they hired Etihad guy to run the airline then it’s clearly targeted towards Middle Eastern clientele. I have flown on both First Classes several times and also happened to have stayed in DC area hotel where were Etihad crew stays for more than a year. Nothing on board or on land makes me believe that airline has hired for western markets. Emirates on the other hand seems to have heavily hired from places like UK, Australia,Serbia, Croatia.
    Not a criticism - just an observation.

  15. tom Guest

    Sell flat bed Business with middle of the road soft product at premium Y prices and many people will think its best in class.

  16. Steve Guest

    When I read about the proposed premium product, does that mean there will be a selection of premium alcohol (or any alcohol at all)?

    Not associated with any alliance or did I miss something?

  17. Mike Guest

    Business class is always more than 2.5 X times economy class ticket prices. He is not telling the truth

  18. TravelinWilly Diamond

    "First class for many international carriers is an egotistical, charitable act..."

    "
    .
    What the hell does that even mean?

    " “…it’s often 2.5x the real estate of business class, but you don’t sell it for 2.5x the ticket price.”

    "
    .
    He’s right – it’s often sold for 3x, 4x, 5x, and more (looking at YOU, Air France) than business class.

    1. Icarus Guest

      That’s a particular inane comment. Air France only has an exclusive 4 seats in La Premiere, which is far superior to business and people pay for it. They wouldn’t offer it otherwise. If the Kardashian’s are prepared to book all four seats on a one way trip from Los Angeles to Paris for $40,000 that makes up for a huge portion of the revenue for the entire flight. Not to forget all the excess baggage fees.

    2. TravelinWilly Diamond

      “Air France only has an exclusive 4 seats in La Premiere, which is far superior to business and people pay for it.”

      Thanks captain obvious; I’m one of the ones who pays for it, so I’m acutely aware of AF LP pricing. Mercifully I don’t follow the Kardashians, but you do you.

    3. Icarus Guest

      Fortunately I do not know much about nor follow the Kardashian's, however used them as an example, as unfortunately the society we live in means that people with little or no talent make money and use it to pay for expensive trips amongst other things.

      I was fortunate to visit the LP Lounge and it was wonderful. Definitely amongst the top five, and the food is phenomenal. Sadly I haven’t actually flown LP yet....

      Fortunately I do not know much about nor follow the Kardashian's, however used them as an example, as unfortunately the society we live in means that people with little or no talent make money and use it to pay for expensive trips amongst other things.

      I was fortunate to visit the LP Lounge and it was wonderful. Definitely amongst the top five, and the food is phenomenal. Sadly I haven’t actually flown LP yet.

      Just to add here, Ben and other bloggers often receive what may be perceived as “better”service as everyone knows he’s coming since uses his real name. During pre flight briefings staff will be made aware he’s on board. If he used a pseudonym, like Josh Cahill, airlines may not be aware when his name is on the manifest.

  19. Icarus Guest

    Sounds like a Trump rant.

    So their Business Class will be better than Air France’s La Premiere. Meaning all their passengers will be personally chauffeur driven to / from the aircraft. The configuration will either be 1-2-1 or 1-1-1. Bearing in mind AF is extremely exclusive with just 4 seats hence they will mirror that with just 4 business class seats.

    Fashion ? There are limitations on what women can wear in KSA....

    Sounds like a Trump rant.

    So their Business Class will be better than Air France’s La Premiere. Meaning all their passengers will be personally chauffeur driven to / from the aircraft. The configuration will either be 1-2-1 or 1-1-1. Bearing in mind AF is extremely exclusive with just 4 seats hence they will mirror that with just 4 business class seats.

    Fashion ? There are limitations on what women can wear in KSA.

    Given money is no issue, every customer will be compensated with €5000 if they are delayed for any reason!

    You can’t claim to be better until customers have travelled with you and over a long period of time.

  20. Tim Dunn Diamond

    I don't think it is unreasonable to believe that Riyadh Air might seriously turn some of the assumptions about how airlines work on their head.
    I agree with him that longhaul first class travel has become a high vanity item that is not economically sustainable considering the amount of floor space. There is too much attention - even in some of the statements in the article - that space defines quality. There are limits...

    I don't think it is unreasonable to believe that Riyadh Air might seriously turn some of the assumptions about how airlines work on their head.
    I agree with him that longhaul first class travel has become a high vanity item that is not economically sustainable considering the amount of floor space. There is too much attention - even in some of the statements in the article - that space defines quality. There are limits of what can be considered acceptable but most travelers would far prefer higher quality service - on the ground and in-flight - than ever-increasing amounts of space. Air travel has lost a lot of its graciousness and it would be nice if someone challenged the notion that premium passengers get some of it; nobody gets a truly premium experience if large portions of the plane get mediocre to poor service.

    As for seats, the manufacturers can do incredible things but it does take time - and Riyadh is clearly not buying off-the-shelf seats.

    Let's see what they do. The market is crowded. They will have to do something different to make a market.

    1. Ben Schlappig OMAAT

      @ Tim Dunn -- "Let's see what they do. The market is crowded. They will have to do something different to make a market."

      That point doesn't match the narrative of Riyadh Air. Douglas has made it clear that the airline is a point-to-point airline and isn't trying to compete with other Gulf carriers on connecting routes. He has also made it clear that Riyadh is currently incredibly underserved, and Riyadh Air is about serving...

      @ Tim Dunn -- "Let's see what they do. The market is crowded. They will have to do something different to make a market."

      That point doesn't match the narrative of Riyadh Air. Douglas has made it clear that the airline is a point-to-point airline and isn't trying to compete with other Gulf carriers on connecting routes. He has also made it clear that Riyadh is currently incredibly underserved, and Riyadh Air is about serving that demand.

      So from the carrier's perspective, Riyadh Air doesn't have to "make a market," and the market isn't crowded. At least that's the claim of the airline.

      Regarding your other point about classes being more than just about the seats, that's totally fair enough. But what would Riyadh Air offer in business class that offers more than you'd get in the world's best first class? How do you do better than unlimited caviar, Dom Perignon, being driven to your plane, etc.? And how do you scale that?

    2. Tim Dunn Diamond

      I don't believe that Riyadh Air can develop a global route system WITHOUT carrying connections. None of the Middle East countries have large enough and wealthy enough markets to support the number of aircraft Riyadh Air intends to fly w/o lots of connections.

      it is precisely some of those higher level service elements that they could roll out as being distinctive.
      The issue, again, is not that there are airlines that provide that to...

      I don't believe that Riyadh Air can develop a global route system WITHOUT carrying connections. None of the Middle East countries have large enough and wealthy enough markets to support the number of aircraft Riyadh Air intends to fly w/o lots of connections.

      it is precisely some of those higher level service elements that they could roll out as being distinctive.
      The issue, again, is not that there are airlines that provide that to SOME customers but that Riyadh Air sounds like they want to offer that level of service to a larger group of customers.

      I'm willing to wait until I see what they come up w/ to pass judgment but, for the sake of the industry, I do hope there are some mavericks that push quality up a few levels for the majority of passengers and not just a select few.

      And I think he is right about environmentalists focusing more and more attention of premium cabin travel and private jets. He is wise to make sure other airlines are 'more offensive" than his.

    3. Mark Guest

      These are traditional marketing claims in which they are carefully carved around few supporting facts. “The Best” can mean best in terms of glassware, bedding, pricing, logo stitched on the seat.

      Riyadh Air is trying to replicate what United does in EWR which is have a large O&D market that needs many fewer connecting passengers to fill flights than a hub in ATL or CLT would. In that regard they may not need a as...

      These are traditional marketing claims in which they are carefully carved around few supporting facts. “The Best” can mean best in terms of glassware, bedding, pricing, logo stitched on the seat.

      Riyadh Air is trying to replicate what United does in EWR which is have a large O&D market that needs many fewer connecting passengers to fill flights than a hub in ATL or CLT would. In that regard they may not need a as many low yielding tickets to India and can save seats for higher yielding passengers arriving or departing from Riyadh. We have no clue if this will actually happen or if it’ll turn into yet another ME3 with a mega connecting hub.

    4. Tim Is So Done Guest

      But only Delta is premium. How can there be another?

  21. Tom Guest

    Ah, but Ben, you haven't heard about Douglas's ace in the hole: basic economy will be as good as economy. Thus, he has a four-class plane with economy sold as basic, premium econ sold as economy, business sold as premium econ, and first class sold as business.

    What ingenious marketing from our most innovative leader in the industry! If only Delta had thought about this earlier

  22. Dn10 Guest

    Ben have you heard anything about NEOM airlines recently?

    1. Ben Schlappig OMAAT

      @ Dn10 -- I haven't heard anything at all since that initial announcement. If I miss anything, please let me know.

    2. Icarus Guest

      Another Saudi vanity project. They spend billions on architecture and airlines, but couldn’t care less about refugees from their region. A country of 36 million can’t have so many airlines all competing with each other. Attempting to make themselves acceptable whilst executing people almost daily.

    3. Matrix Guest

      as far as I know NEOM is a futuristic city, without any airport, are you sure it is an airline as well?

    4. AD Diamond

      @Matrix, there is an airport in NEOM. Neom Bay (NUM)

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The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Ben Schlappig OMAAT

@ Tim Dunn -- "Let's see what they do. The market is crowded. They will have to do something different to make a market." That point doesn't match the narrative of Riyadh Air. Douglas has made it clear that the airline is a point-to-point airline and isn't trying to compete with other Gulf carriers on connecting routes. He has also made it clear that Riyadh is currently incredibly underserved, and Riyadh Air is about serving that demand. So from the carrier's perspective, Riyadh Air doesn't have to "make a market," and the market isn't crowded. At least that's the claim of the airline. Regarding your other point about classes being more than just about the seats, that's totally fair enough. But what would Riyadh Air offer in business class that offers more than you'd get in the world's best first class? How do you do better than unlimited caviar, Dom Perignon, being driven to your plane, etc.? And how do you scale that?

4
TravelinWilly Diamond

“Air France only has an exclusive 4 seats in La Premiere, which is far superior to business and people pay for it.” Thanks captain obvious; I’m one of the ones who pays for it, so I’m acutely aware of AF LP pricing. Mercifully I don’t follow the Kardashians, but you do you.

1
Mike Guest

Business class is always more than 2.5 X times economy class ticket prices. He is not telling the truth

1
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