In early 2025 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will welcome its second flag carrier: Riyadh Air. Former Etihad Airways CEO Tony Douglas is at the helm
Riyadh Air is making a big noise. There have already been glitzy hotel receptions on the eve of the Paris Air Show in June, sponsorship deals with one of Spain’s leading soccer teams, high-profile orders for Boeing widebodies, and the unveiling via social media of not one, but two, liveries for its jets.
Airlines are started up, and fail, all the time. However, the launch of Riyadh Air is different. Firstly, the launch of a national flag carrier is a rare occurrence for the simple fact that most countries already have them.
Secondly, the scale of Riyadh Air’s launch, from day one, is breathtaking, and would probably be even greater if only the airline could get hold of more aircraft in time.
The first news of Saudi Arabia’s intentions to launch a second flag carrier emerged in June 2021. Details were scarce, but the few that came with the announcement by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman demonstrated the Kingdom’s ambitions.
These extend to launching not only Riyadh Air, but also another carrier, NEOM Airlines, to serve the country’s new city in the northwest of Saudi Arabia – plus major expansion at existing flag carrier Saudia. The country’s major airports are also seeing millions of dollars of investment as they grow to keep up; the recently announced King Salman International Airport masterplan is one example.
Saudi Arabia has an intense focus on its travel and tourism industries because they are seen as a key tool in the government’s Vision 2030 strategy. The strategy aims to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop public services.
The headline numbers are simple and significant, with a target to welcome 100 million tourist visitors and serve 330 million passengers by 2030; a rapidly expanded air transport industry is needed to achieve this ambitious goal.
Although there were few details in 2021 of Saudi Arabia’s unnamed new airline, speculation about its arrival, and the role of Saudia in the future, was rife.
The first gossip indicated that the new airline would be called RIA, the letters clearly pointing to its main base as Riyadh, the Saudi capital and its largest city. The second main word on the street was that Etihad Airways chief, Briton Tony Douglas, was leaving the Abu Dhabi-based carrier to assume the CEO role at the new carrier.
This speculation intensified in September 2022 with the news that Douglas had left Etihad to “pursue a new opportunity elsewhere”. It was the industry’s worst kept secret that he was headed to Riyadh to help Saudi Arabia launch its new airline.
On 12 March 2023, all was revealed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman when he announced the establishment of Riyadh Air, wholly owned by Saudi Arabia’s colossal Public Investment Fund (PIF). A press release stated: “The new national carrier will leverage Saudi Arabia’s strategic geographic location between the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, enabling Riyadh to become a gateway to the world and a global destination for transportation, trade and tourism.”
Riyadh Air is chaired by His Excellency Yasir Al-Rumayyan, Governor of PIF, while Douglas will lead the airline’s senior management which includes Saudi and international expertise.
Operating from Riyadh as its hub, Riyadh Air will be a digitally led full-service carrier with the aim to offer connections to over 100 destinations around the world by 2030. The airline is expected to add US$20 billion to non-oil GDP growth and create more than 200,000 direct and indirect jobs in the Kingdom.
Starting from scratch, Douglas and his team have less than two years to bring Riyadh Air to its maiden flight. A priority is to choose and order aircraft; just two days after its formal launch Riyadh Air placed a huge order with Boeing for 39 787-9 Dreamliners, with options to buy a further 33.
The first deliveries of the widebody aircraft are scheduled for early 2025. The airline is also planning a major narrowbody aircraft order.
According to Douglas: “The new airline reflects the ambitious vision of Saudi Arabia to be at the core of shaping the future of global air travel and be a true disrupter in terms of guest experience.”
On 4 June, at the IATA Annual General Meeting in Istanbul, the airline announced it had obtained ‘RX’ as an airline designator code from IATA, thus joining the world’s airline community. Douglas noted that since the airline’s launch that March, its careers web page has received job applications from over 300,000 applicants in 182 countries around the world.
In a carefully planned media campaign, the first Riyadh Air-liveried Boeing 787-9 aircraft made flights over its home city of Riyadh on 12 June ahead of its public debut at the Paris Air Show a few days later.
The first livery design and purple colours reflect Saudi warmth and hospitality in a fresh, modern design, said Riyadh Air. Another livery will be revealed later.
The Riyadh Air-liveried aircraft was on static display at Paris and the airline also became one of very few – Qatar Airways has long been the other – to have its own hospitality chalet at the show. This was another demonstration of its desire to promote the launch of the carrier and the seriousness of its mission.
At this time, it is not known how many aircraft Riyadh Air will receive in 2025 or how fast Boeing will be able to flow 787s to the carrier. However, Douglas has said he expects the number to be in the double digits in year one.
The arrival of aircraft will dictate the momentum Riyadh Air can build to achieve its 100-destination target by 2030. The first destinations have not been announced yet but delegates at the upcoming Routes World event in Istanbul in October will be keen for meetings with Riyadh Air to secure the early services.
Douglas asserted that Riyadh is under-served today and offers a major opportunity for the carrier. The likelihood is that the airline will begin to announce its network plans in early 2024, he said.
The first cities to be served are not big surprises, with major European capitals, US hubs, particularly on the east coast, major far eastern cities, and cities in the Middle East on the radar, said
Its website, which teases about many aspects of the carrier’s launch, boasts that Riyadh Air will be “the future of travel”.
Public relations hyperbole aside, the arrival of Riyadh Air is a serious statement of intent from a country that has put tourism and travel at the heart of its economic and social development over the coming decade and beyond.