Skift Take

Riyadh Air doesn't see itself becoming a "super-connecter" like Dubai's Emirates airline. It's banking on immense demand for travel out of Saudi Arabia.

The chief operating officer of Saudi Arabia’s new airline, Riyadh Air, doesn’t expect the carrier will become a “super-connecter” but will focus instead on “point-to-point” travel. And COO Peter Bellew told Skift at the Dubai Airshow Tuesday that Ryadh Air will meet different needs than nearby Emirates.

“Emirates is a great airline, but a lot of Riyadh Air’s traffic will be point-to-point. A lot of people are going to Riyadh. We just want to make it really easy for travelers to get point-to-point. I don’t see us being some super-connector, I think it will be the reverse,” he said.

Launching in the middle of 2025, Riyadh Air hopes to fly to more than 100 destinations by the end of the decade. The airline expects to cover all major cities, including those in the Americas, and adding $20 billion to the kingdom’s economy.

The airline is owned by the country’s immense sovereign wealth fund, called the Public Investment Fund, or PIF. The sovereign wealth fund is investing in what is anticipated to become one of the largest airports globally.

Revealed last year, the King Salman International Airport in Riyadh aims to cater to a capacity of up to 185 million passengers and handle 3.5 million tons of cargo by 2050. By comparison, Atlanta’s airport, presently the busiest in the world, managed approximately 110 million passengers in 2019.

Regional neighbor Dubai has one of the busiest airports in the world, where Emirates is based. Airport operator Dubai Airports said it served 41.6 million guests in the first half of 2023, a 49% increase from the first half of 2022.

Riyadh Air Banking On City’s Success

As the name suggests, Riyadh Air is heavily focused on operations out of the city. Saudia, the long-standing national carrier, is being pushed more heavily into its base in Jeddah so Riyadh Air can lead the way in the capital.

Bellew said: “If you look at Saudia’s position, the demand for people to go to Jeddah is exponentially large. The traffic there is increasing beyond everybody’s expectations. It has an enormous religious tourism demand. Every piece of metal Saudia has, they’ll need to deploy it down in Jeddah.”

“Saudia needs the metal [in Jeddah] and they would’ve needed to increase in size to what we will be [if they stayed in Riyadh].”

Much like how Emirates’ success has been intrinsically tied to the tourism success story of Dubai, Bellew has similar aspirations for Riyadh Air.

He said: “Riyadh is our brand, it’s the brand of the city and that city is the capital. All the billions going into the city will benefit Riyadh Air and the city will benefit from having our brand flying around the world.”

Saudi Tourism Targets

The country has a tourism target of 150 million travelers by 2030, combining both international and domestic guests to hit that goal. Tourism chiefs are eyeing around 70 million international visits that same year. In 2022, Saudi saw only 16.5 million inbound visitors. But domestically the country saw 77.8 million visitors. Saudi counts that as 94.4 visitors total in 2022 – a 45% increase on 2019 and spending has gone up 25%.

Riyadh Air hasn’t announced any orders at the Dubai Airshow yet, and is unlikely to. Emirates meanwhile announced a 90-craft, $52 billion deal with Boeing yesterday. For the Saudi carrier, the focus right now is hiring.

Bellew said: “The brand [Riyadh Air] gets elevated just by being at the show. We’re very busy at the moment recruiting people. We have to recruit 700 pilots, 6,000 cabin crew and 1,000 engineers in the next three years.”

“It’s been very busy. The biggest challenge right now isn’t getting customers, it’s getting people to operate the airline. We’re not struggling to find cabin crew, engineers and pilots but many carriers are. We’ve recruited 20 pilots [since launching]. For all airlines at the moment, that’s the biggest challenge.”

See Riyadh Air’s CEO Tony Douglas speak on-stage at the Skift Global Forum East in Dubai on December 13.

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Tags: airline news, aviation news, Dubai Airshow, Riyadh Air, Saudi Tourism

Photo credit: Riyadh Air. Supplied. Manuel Negrerie / Riyadh Air Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner N8572C

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