One of the world’s newest and most ambitious airlines; Riyadh Air made its international debut at the Paris Airshow with a striking purple Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The new airline has plans to carry more than 100 million passengers to a network of more than 100 destinations by the end of the decade.
I interviewed Riyadh Air CEO Tony Douglas about the exciting new airline.
Q: What’s the business case for starting Riyadh Air?
A: The passenger profile at Riyadh International Airport at the moment is about 93% point to point. There is a huge demand to support the biggest population within the Arabian Peninsula. Riyadh at the moment is not connected well enough all around the world. So the new national carrier is designed to connect to over 100 cities by 2030. Tony Douglas, CEO, of Riyadh Air
How much investment is there in this airline? Tell me all the challenges and the process to start an airline from scratch.
Look, it’s absolutely super exciting for all of us within the Riyadh Air family because it’s a startup. We have no legacy. That’s probably the greatest gift that we possess. But we have to build everything from the ground up; cities for our cabin crew and pilots in the future. Pilot training capability, obviously sourcing aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul, and thousands of other activities that are associated with starting a new airline.Tony Douglas, CEO, of Riyadh Air
It’s super fun and what we’ve got off to is an amazing start. Revealing our brand has been some of the key milestones to date, but I think we’ll be able to tease and reveal over the next two years before we put our first commercial flight into operation with the second livery, with what the interior look like and importantly, how will digitally differentiate. So keep your eyes focused on Riyadh Air.
Tell me about your network strategy – Is Riyadh Air flying both short-haul and long-haul?
We were delighted on the 14th of March to announce that 72 aircraft orders with Boeing 787, 39 of them are confirmed orders and 33 were optional. We’re currently working on a narrow body campaign and hopefully, we’ll be able to announce the outcome of that shortly. You will see a fleet that will operate both within the kingdom, regionally, but also internationally.
So again, exciting times to put a full-service carrier into the market, operating from the hub of Riyadh, making sure that we have an obsessional attention to detail with guest experience, but a genuinely digital native proposition to how we present ourselves into the market of the future.
How are you able to compete with established airlines like Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad?
Well, we’re not establishing ourselves to be a transit hub, a super-connector in that sense. So some of the examples you’ve just used have got 70 or even 80% transfer traffic at the moment. 93% of everything that comes into Riyadh is point-to-point.
So I’m sure you’ll see the fact that what we’re talking about here is first and foremost sourcing ability for the kingdom to connect to the world and the world to connect to the kingdom and Saudi Arabia is the second fastest growing economy in the world. So I think it’s gonna take us quite a long time just to catch up back to where we should have been.
Some people have scepticism about the plans of Saudi Arabia. What do you say to people having reservations about flying and visiting Saudi Arabia?
So interestingly, up to now in 2023, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the second most searched travel destination on the internet. I think what that clearly illustrates is the amount of interest that’s building the amount of curiosity that’s out there. But it goes without saying if you’ve now decided you do want to visit and the place is incredible in terms of destination attractions. How do you get there? How do I have an incredible experience? And the answer in the future of course is Riyadh Air.
How do you see Riyadh Air in 2030?
So by 2030, we’ll be connecting to over a hundred cities in our network. We’ll be operating both wide-body and narrow-body. We’ll be operating two incredible liveries. One of them has become an internet sensation already. And the second one I’m teasing to reveal in perhaps November of this year, an absolutely stunning second livery. But what that brand will be synonymous with leading all the way up to 2030 is an absolute A-lister when it comes to service quality with an obsessional attention to detail and a genuine, genuine digital native.
Timeline of Riyadh Air
Riyadh Air unveiled its first livery on 4 June 2023. The scheme was painted on its very first Boeing 787-9 aircraft. On the same day, it received its airline designator code “RX” from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) at the World Air Transport Summit.
On 14 June 2023, the airline was granted the License by the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA), which is necessary for the airline to begin commercial operations.
According to Riyadh Air, it is expected to add $20 billion to non-oil GDP growth and create more than 200,000 direct and indirect jobs.