Saudi Arabia needs a second airline because it's 'not as easy as it should be' to get to 'the home of Cristiano Ronaldo,' says the CEO of the country's next carrier



Tony Douglas, the CEO behind Saudi Arabia’s soon-to-be second flag carrier, couldn’t get a direct flight to Singapore from his home base of Riyadh. Douglas, who heads Riyadh Air, had to instead fly to Dubai, then transfer to UAE-based airline Emirates to get to Southeast Asia. Other staff members had to fly Qatar Airways via Doha.

Saudi Arabia is “the home of Cristiano Ronaldo [and] a country that’s two-thirds the size of Europe.” Douglas said in a moderated discussion at Aviation Festival Asia 2024 in Singapore on Wednesday.

“The question is: How do you get there?” he said. The answer? “Regrettably not as easy as it should be.”

“It’s difficult to think of a successful international economy that doesn’t have world-class connectivity,” he concluded.

Currently, Saudi Arabia’s sole carrier is the state-owned Saudia, which currently flies to 90 destinations. After Riyadh Air’s launch, Saudia will completely withdraw from Riyadh—Saudi Arabia’s capital—by 2030 and transfer its operations to the new airline, according to Airways Magazine.

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman officially announced Riyadh Air in March 2023. The carrier is fully owned by the Public Investment Fund, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund. The new airline is part of a plan to develop Riyadh as a transportation and tourism hub as the country seeks to diversify away from oil.

As part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 project, the kingdom wants 100 million visits annually by the end of the decade, and hopes tourism can contribute at least 10% of the country’s economy.

On Wednesday, Douglas said that Riyadh Air will get its air operator’s certificate, which would allow the airline to conduct commercial air transport operations, by the end of this year The carrier has provisionally ordered 72 Boeing 787 widebody jets; Douglas did not provide specifics when asked about plans to order narrow-body jets, but suggested the number will be larger than many of its peers, but smaller than the 470 planes recently ordered by Air India.

Douglas, formerly the CEO of Eithad Airways, said the airline had no plans to rush into one of the major alliances. Having “no legacy” means the carrier has an “opportunity to build an airline for the future,” he said.

Riyadh Air will be a “digital native,” Douglas said. “Your face will be your loyalty profile…If you tell us that you’re left-handed on your profile, when we serve your lunch we’ll put your knives and forks the other way around,” he explained.

And when it comes to the cabin crew, Douglas pointed to the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can” and the “halcyon days [of] the 60s” as references.

“People used to stop and look at cabin crew going through the halls,” he said. “We will bring the 2025 version with a modernistic Saudi twist.”



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