Saudi Arabia’s all-new flag carrier Riyadh Air intends to take on globe-striding competitors such as Emirates, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Turkish Airlines – but it will do so without the seemingly-obvious lure of opulent first class suites.
Instead, it seems likely the ambitious Saudi startup will forge ahead with what CEO Tony Douglas described in his days at the helm of Etihad Airways as a ‘business plus’ proposition capable of taking on the likes of Qatar Airways’ Qsuite.
“We will offer business, premium economy and economy on our long-haul jets but not first,” Douglas tells The Telegraph’s John Arlidge.
Douglas’ confirmation that Riyadh Air will be a ‘first-free zone’ comes the same week that Qatar Airways chief Akbar Al Baker confirmed he had scrapped plans for a handful of high-luxe first class suites on the Boeing 777X.
“We don’t want to put first class in the aeroplanes because it is very expensive real estate,” Al Baker admitted on the sidelines of this week’s annual International Air Transport Association (IATA) conference.
Besides which, he added, Qatar’s Qsuite business class “is superior to other airlines’ first class”.
But while Douglas is eschewing first class for Riyadh Air in the same way that he did at Etihad – where he championed modern, well-appointed and doored business class suites – his confirmation that Riyadh Air will feature premium economy seats and service should also help the airline level up against its rivals.
State-owned Riyadh Air aims to serve more than 100 destinations around the world by 2030, with the country’s relatively central location between Asia, Africa and Europe making it an ideal hub for passengers jetting to and from all corners of the world.
And they’ll be doing so in the latest aircraft from Airbus and Boeing, with a US$37 billion starting order for 39 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners and options for 33 more, while the delayed Boeing 777-9 is also a possibility.
The first Riyadh Air Boeing 787 has already debuted a striking purple-hued look that will grace airports around the world for flights carrying Riyadh Air’s RX code.
Lavender, which is native to Saudi Arabia and spreads across the desert dunes in an explosion of colour each spring, is used by the nation’s government for ceremonial and official purposes.
The 787’s tail and engine are emblazoned with the logo of a a stylised R which forms an airplane window, symbolising the airline’s goal to be “Saudi Arabia’s window to the world.”
However, Douglas has confirmed that particular Dreamliner will never be flown by the carrier – the real Riyadh Air Boeing 787 fleet won’t arrive until early 2025, with indications the eye-catching purple plane was more of an expensive and admittedly very effective publicity exercise on the eve of the IATA gathering.
And those 787s will be just the start, Douglas says: Riyadh Air will “move with real pace” to expand.
“There will be more orders to follow and it will enable us to put connectivity into places that fulfil the ambition of the nation, but for the avoidance of doubt, this will be commercially sustainable.”
The fledgling carrier doesn’t plan on leasing aircraft before then as “we don’t want to start with a product that is not consistent” with the experience the carrier hopes to offer its customers, the CEO said.
Riyadh Air is an ambitious play to open up Saudi Arabia and help kickstart its tourism industry to become one of the world’s most popular destinations, with 100 million visitors by 2030.
The carrier will operate alongside fellow state-owned airlines Saudia and the soon-to-launch Neom Airlines, which is expected to take wing in late 2024 or early 2025 and will have a narrower focus on serving the country’s new mega city ‘Neom’ on the Red Sea.
Neom Airlines CEO Klaus Goersch confirms the trio would not be in competition with each other, as each focuses on a different market: Riyadh Air for global connections, Saudia for religious traffic, and Neom dedicated to the Red Sea development.
While the country has been largely closed off to foreign visitors until 2019, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is investing in resorts and airports as part of a plan to wean the economy off a reliance on oil sales while also transforming it into regional centre of business, tourism, trade and logistics.
Riyadh Air is expected to create more than 200,000 direct and indirect jobs and add US$20 billion to Saudi’s non-oil growth.
And there’ll be plenty of oil money to bootstrap the carrier: over the weekend the Saudi Arabian Oil company – known better as Aramco – reported a record annual profit of US$161 billion for 2022.