Who isn't excited for a new story? Riyadh Air CEO Tony Douglas vows to upend status quo
Global connectivity, hyper personalization, an improved loyalty program, an airline built for digital natives — these are some of the promises Riyadh Air is making to its future fliers.
But perhaps the more peculiar ones would be the airline’s decision to have no first class, a premium economy that’s better than any other airline’s business class and no cabin crew uniforms. Instead, the crew will have attire specially-outfitted fashion by a designer, with more details to follow next year.
“First class for many international carriers is an egotistical charitable act, which is not commercially sustainable,” CEO of Riyadh Air Tony Douglas said at Skift Global Forum East on Thursday. “I think when you see our Premium Economy, most of you will conclude that it’s better than just about anybody’s business class you’ll see out there. And actually, most importantly, when you see our economy, I think you’ll probably conclude that it’s better than just about anybody’s premium economy out there.”
The decision for doing away with the first class is one that’s dictated by both financial and environmental sustainability. Soon after the airline’s launch in March this year, Douglas committed to making the carrier both commercially and environmentally sustainable. Douglas emphasized the importance of addressing climate concerns in the aviation industry and warned that carriers failing to embrace environmental sustainability might face challenges.
Even as the airline vows to change the status quo, it faces some of the same challenges incumbents do.
Riyadh Air’s headcount targets include hiring 700 pilots, about 6000 cabin crew and 1000 engineers.
Douglas said that the careers page of the airline invited people who want to register their interest and post their resumes certifications to be listed and the results were “fantastic.”
“Over last week, over a million mark of people who have applied in nine months, 1 million in nine months 146 different nationalities, 52% female, well in excess of 45% Saudi nationals, and 45,000 pilots,” Douglas said. “Now that doesn’t suggest for a minute that the answer is in what I’ve just described. But nonetheless, I think that is an illustration of the excitement. of commercial aviation. We’ve been really very pleasantly taken by surprise because it’s a new story and everybody loves a new story.”
Aircraft Delivery Challenges
Aircraft delivery challenges can be quite real for airlines. “When aircraft are delivered six months late that is considered to be on time,” IATA chief economist Marie Owens Thomsen said at the association’s general meeting earlier this year.
For Riyadh Air, that problem hits harder in the absence of a network and a current fleet.
“We don’t have a plan B, and the reason why we don’t have a plan B is obvious,” Douglas said. “If I was Lufthansa, if I was Qatar Airways, and they were delivered late, I’ll change my network around. I might extend some leases but we don’t have a current fleet. We don’t have a network until the first deliveries arrive. And so what we’ve tried to make clear with everybody is we do need special care.”
A clean slate means an opportunity to redefine old ways. Douglas believes that includes the way the carrier will treat its loyal customers.
“Loyal customers today tend to be males over 40 walking around with the case with the loyalty plastic tag hanging off the side of it. It’s an attempt to say, I’m Billy big time, and I’ve got a platinum card on the side of my case. That’s not a one to one guest engagement strategy. That’s a one-to-many strategy,” Douglas said. “Because we’ll start from day one, as a digital native with that ambition, it gives us the ability to make a guest experience when it comes to loyalty, a lot more one to one as opposed to one to many. And that would be our ambition.”
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Photo credit: Riyadh Air CEO Tony Douglas at Skift Global Forum East 2023. Source: Skift