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Is Saudi Arabia’s aviation strategy cleared for landing?

The masterplan is in place – all the kingdom needs now is passengers

Speaking at the Future Aviation Forum, International Civil Aviation Organization president Salvatore Sciacchitano praised Saudi Arabia’s role in shaping the future of global aviation SPA
Speaking at the Future Aviation Forum, International Civil Aviation Organization president Salvatore Sciacchitano praised Saudi Arabia’s role in shaping the future of global aviation

The great and the good of Middle East aviation convened in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh this week to discuss the future of regional airlines.

At this third edition of the Future Aviation Forum, ministers, airline CEOs and a raft of consultancies discussed similar subjects to last year – and probably the year before. 

But has much progress been made towards those ambitious Vision 2030 targets?

The strategy for aviation in Saudi Arabia is now clearly established. All of the local airlines know their roles and responsibilities. 

Saudia is concentrating on Jeddah while Riyadh Air, that most virtual of airlines, is focused on the capital.

Meanwhile, the kingdom’s two major low-cost carriers are tasked with stimulating as much demand as they can create from almost anywhere to anywhere. 

Saudia is likely to hold on to its valuable slots at airports such as Heathrow until Riyadh Air is in a position to operate. When that happens, Saudia will either find new slots at Heathrow, relocate to Gatwick from where it already flies, or perhaps even leave the London market. 

In normal times finding aircraft and staff is challenging for any startup airline. In today’s world it is even more difficult. For Riyadh Air, operating by the end of 2024 seems unrealistic and perhaps the middle of 2025 is a more likely option.

Attracting new airlines to operate to Saudi Arabia is the task of the Air Connectivity Programme. It has already succeeded in attracting new carriers by providing incentives – at a likely cost. 

All three of China’s major airlines now operate to the kingdom, although the slow recovery of international travel from China may act as a dampener on demand in the short to medium term.

Last week British Airways announced that it was returning to Jeddah with a four-times weekly service from October. This will have required a large level of support from the Connectivity Programme.

It will be interesting to see how the route performs. BA has a track record of leaving markets when local support finishes; let us hope this is not the case on this route. 

There will likely be more announcements soon. For the kingdom, attracting one of the big three US carriers is probably the most high-profile remaining target. The market seems suited to United Airlines more than the other two carriers. Let us see what happens.

Deals worth $19 billion were struck during the 2024 Future Aviation ForumSPA
Deals worth $19 billion were struck during the 2024 Future Aviation Forum
New aircraft orders

The big announcement at the Aviation Forum was the order from Saudia for an additional 93 A321 NEOs and 12 A320 NEOs from Airbus. These aircraft will be shared across the group in the coming years with delivery dates yet to be confirmed. 

The order books of both Airbus and Boeing are full for the next eight years and Boeing faces ongoing challenges in delivering new aircraft. So this Saudia order is either at the back of a long queue or the airline has managed to take up previously allocated positions.

Saudia is well set – but what of Riyadh Air? The airline plans to start selling seats from January 2025 and operating flights from around June 2025.

It has already placed an order for wide-bodied B787s from Boeing but those aircraft will require connecting traffic to fill the thousands of seats on offer.

To date, Riyadh Air has “teased” the market, saying that it has secured the aircraft but has yet to make any more details public. Why is a matter of conjecture. 

Placing an order for more Boeings would be a remarkable commitment to a manufacturer which cannot deliver aircraft to existing customers on time. Equally, placing an order with Airbus when others are lining up will see Riyadh Air at the back of a long queue.

All of which points to the signing of a leasing agreement with an established customer which has aircraft deliveries due in the next 18 months. This option may cost more but it may be the price of market entry for Riyadh. 

Infrastructure development

Construction of some sort is underway at every airport in Saudi Arabia. New terminal buildings, runways, passenger facilities and airport sites are gathering pace to cope with a planned 300 million travellers’ passing through the kingdom by 2030.

Money seems to be no object when it comes to the airport expansion programmes although increasingly delivery of these projects appears to be more phased than originally proposed.

This week’s announcements at the Aviation Forum are part of the stage-managed story of Vision 2030 and the aviation transformation that is underway in Saudi Arabia. There is a genuinely remarkable level of progress.

Other industry events such as the UK’s biannual Farnborough Air Show in July will provide their own opportunities for sound bites and photoshoots.

But at the end of the day, or more specifically 2024, it will be interesting to see how demand for travel to Saudi Arabia has grown during the year. 

Does a “build it and they will come” strategy deliver – or is the challenge harder than anticipated?

John Grant is partner at UK consultancy Midas Aviation

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