We know that Saudi Arabia is in the process of launching an ambitious new airline, which is expected to grow at a very fast pace. The airline hasn’t had some big formal launch where we learned everything, but rather it seems that individual aspects of the airline have slowly been announced over time.
In this post, I wanted to take an updated look at everything we know so far about the airline. The company’s CEO gave some pretty interesting interviews during the Paris Air Show, so I wanted to integrate what I learned into this post.
In this post:
What we know so far about airline startup Riyadh Air
Riyadh Air is the name of Saudi Arabia’s new national airline, owned by the country’s Public Investment Fund. As it’s described, the airline is intended to usher in a new era for travel and aviation in Saudi Arabia, and provide tourists from around the globe the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia’s cultural and natural attractions. The airline is expected to add $20 billion of non-oil GDP growth, and create more than 200,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Let’s cover what we know so far about this airline.
Riyadh Air is run by Tony Douglas
Riyadh Air’s CEO is Tony Douglas, the former CEO of Etihad Airways. Douglas is an interesting choice, because at Etihad he was focused on shrinking the airline into profitability, after the previous CEO lit billions of dollars on fire. It’s going to be interesting to see how he does balancing Saudi Arabia’s ambitious goals for the airline with creating a company that’s sustainable.
To give you a sense of Douglas’ approach with the airline, below is a recent interview he gave, where he describes the vision for the airline.
Riyadh Air’s management team goes way beyond Douglas, though. The airline has hired so many well respected executives and managers from other airlines, so the airline has built quite the team in Riyadh.
Riyadh Air will launch operations in early 2025
As it stands, Riyadh Air’s goal is to launch operations in the first half of 2025. That’s ambitious for a large airline startup, but seems somewhat realistic, assuming there are no aircraft delivery delays. What’s interesting is that when Douglas was asked if he’s confident about that timeline, he said “for sure.” He sure is optimistic, given how many Boeing 787 delivery delays we’ve seen.
Riyadh Air will be based in Riyadh, serve 100 destinations
Riyadh Air isn’t hoping to be some small, boutique airline. Rather the airline is hoping to grow to be the size of Emirates, only much faster. The company’s goal is to serve over 100 destinations globally by 2030, which is some very fast growth.
Riyadh Air will be based at Riyadh Airport. Historically Saudia has been Saudi Arabia’s national airline, and the company has had operations out of both Riyadh and Jeddah. So with the forming of Riyadh Air, I’d expect the airline to focus almost exclusively on Riyadh, while Saudia increasingly focuses on Jeddah.
What’s interesting is that Douglas claims that the airline isn’t primarily targeting connecting passengers (as the other Gulf carriers do), but rather is targeting those traveling to and from Riyadh, as he feels the city isn’t currently well enough connected. He points out that the Saudi Arabia is the biggest economy in the Gulf, and the country is the second fastest growing in the world. That’s a major difference compared to airlines like Emirates and Qatar Airways, where a vast majority of passengers are connecting.
As part of this massive growth plan, Saudi Arabia plans to build a new mega-airport in Riyadh, which will be known as King Salman International Airport. The airport will stretch over 57 square kilometers (22 square miles), and will be able to accommodate 120 million travelers annually by 2030, and up to 185 million travelers annually by 2050.
Riyadh Air will fly Boeing 787s, and more
Riyadh Air will be launching operations with Boeing 787-9s. The airline has ordered up to 72 Boeing 787-9s, including a firm order for 39 jets, and options for a further 33 jets.
Riyadh Air is also expected to place a narrow body aircraft order in the near future. The airline is deciding between the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo, with the company reportedly leaning toward the former. I imagine we’ll see more aircraft orders in the future, though that seems to be the starting point for the airline.
Riyadh Air has also revealed a bold livery for its Boeing 787s. The airline has another livery it will reveal later this year, and then we’ll see both of those liveries at launch. I can’t think of another airline that has two liveries, so that’s unique (some airlines have some minor variations with each plane, like Frontier and JetBlue, but nothing like this).
By the way, the 787 in full Riyadh Air livery doesn’t actually belong to the airline. This is just a Boeing aircraft that was temporarily painted in the Riyadh Air livery, so that the airline can build up excitement about its launch. There are no plans for that actual plane to ever fly for Riyadh Air.
Riyadh Air will have three cabins, no first class
While we don’t have any exact cabin details as of now, the plan is for Riyadh Air’s Boeing 787s to feature three classes of service. They’ll have business class, premium economy, and economy, but won’t have first class.
Exact details of the product remain to be seen, but I’d expect that the carrier’s hard product will be really competitive. Here’s what Douglas has hinted at:
- The airline promises that all three cabins will redefine the standard of what you’d expect, including a “business plus” and “an amazing economy product”
- The airline promises to have an “obsessional attention to detail”
My take on Riyadh Air
Saudi Arabia seems committed to launching this new airline concept. The country has hired some really smart people to run the airline, so in that sense, the company is about as well positioned as it possibly could be.
I get that that the country has money to spare, though realistically speaking, I’m still not sure I totally understand the vision. First of all, what’s the logic for Saudi Arabia starting a second major global airline?
- Saudia has been growing significantly, including modernizing its fleet
- Saudia has done a good job serving both Jeddah and Riyadh, by often operating alternating frequencies to the two cities
- While I think there are situations where it can make sense to split up airlines (like what Aeroflot did with Rossiya… well, at least before the invasion of Ukraine), I’m not sure I get the concept of creating two competing global long haul airlines, in terms of synergies, brand recognition, etc.
Perhaps the government thinks Saudia has “legacy” issues, and starting from scratch might just be easier. But at that point doesn’t it almost make sense to shut down Saudia, send the planes to the new airline, and start over, rather than having two competing government-owned airlines?
If you ask me, the biggest challenge that Riyadh Air faces is convincing non-Muslims that they’d want to travel to or through Saudi Arabia. For that matter, that’s the biggest challenge that Saudi Arabia faces with its ambitious tourism goals.
The perception of Saudi Arabia is very different than the perception of the UAE, for example, where a lot of people are very happy to vacation. If Saudi Arabia hopes to see widespread tourism, the country needs to relax restrictions, including around alcohol, clothing, conduct, etc.
Places like the UAE have shown that you can have laws based on Islam while still attracting tourists from all over the globe. That’s not to say that I agree with all of the UAE’s laws (of course), but it’s objectively a place that many feel comfortable traveling to, with fairly few problems. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the same reputation, at least as of now.
Lastly, I think it’s interesting that Riyadh Air is primarily intending to target local traffic, rather than connecting traffic. Yes, Riyadh has a large population, but without a majority of passengers connecting beyond Riyadh, I have to imagine it’ll be tough for an airline the size of Riyadh Air to fill planes.
Riyadh Air is Saudi Arabia’s new national airline. The country has ambitious plans for this airline, which is expected to launch operations in early 2025. Riyadh Air will initially fly Boeing 787s, and hopes to serve 100 destinations by 2030. This is no doubt an ambitious project, and I’m curious to watch how this plays out over time.
What do you make of Riyadh Air?