Saudia is pushing ahead with major network expansion and fleet investment as it seeks to play its part in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s hugely ambitious travel and tourism goals.
Arcing water jets from the bright red fire trucks frame a Saudia widebody as the aircraft taxis past the impressive air traffic control tower at Beijing’s Daxing International Airport.
The arrival of the Airbus A330, seen in our feature image here, was an aircraft that had departed Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport on 4 August, and marked yet another significant milestone in the rise of Saudia.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s flag carrier is on a mission to modernise its brand, passenger experience and fleet, and to radically expand its network, as it seeks to increase passenger numbers to meet the country’s ambitious travel and tourism plans.
The inaugural service described here was Saudia’s first direct flight to Beijing. The China connections are just the latest in a slew of new route launches in 2023 that also include Seoul, Guangzhou and Athens.
“At Saudia, we remain dedicated to expanding our network and contributing to the 250 destinations outlined in the Saudi National Aviation strategy,” said Saudia Chief Executive Captain Ibrahim Koshy.
“Partnerships, like the one with ACP [the Saudi Air Connectivity Program], play a crucial role in achieving this goal. Together, we have successfully launched routes, including Birmingham, UK [see related feature on page 36], and Zurich, that have enabled us to connect the world to Saudi Arabia,” said Koshy.
Saudia is not only launching new routes but also expanding frequencies and adding services to many other cities, such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
The Beijing routes were opened in collaboration with ACP, established in 2021 to contribute to tourism growth in Saudi Arabia by enhancing air connectivity and developing existing and prospective air routes, connecting Saudi Arabia to new destinations.
The initiative falls in line with Saudi Arabia’s aviation strategy, which recognises the importance of air connectivity in targeting key markets, such as China, and accommodating increasing demand from international travellers seeking to discover the tourist attractions of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s focus on its travel and tourism industries is clear because they are seen as a key tool in the government’s Vision 2030 strategy. This aims to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop public services. The target is to welcome 100 million tourist visitors and serve 330 million passengers by 2030.
Wings of connection
“We are proud to expand our operations and offer new destinations to our guests,” said His Excellency Eng Ibrahim Al-Omar, Director General of Saudia Group. “China is a very important route for Saudia, and the introduction of the new direct flights to and from Beijing not only boosts tourism but also strengthens the overall economic and cultural ties between the two nations. It facilitates increased travel, trade and people-to-people exchanges, fostering stronger bilateral relations.
“Tourism is a pillar of Saudi Vision 2030, and China is ranked among the top global sources of tourists,” added Al-Omar. “This new route will be another large step forward towards Saudi Arabia’s ambitious economic diversification agenda and it can achieve much growth with more Chinese vacationers coming to the Kingdom.
“We are also very grateful for the continuous support provided by the Air Connectivity Program, which enables us to continue to grow as we work towards achieving our objective to bring the world to Saudi Arabia,” said Al-Omar.
ACP anticipates the launch of additional routes to and from the Kingdom in the second half of 2023 and the first half of 2024, further broadening its aviation network and international accessibility.
According to Alhasan Aldabbagh, President of APAC Markets at Saudi Tourism Authority: “This is an iconic achievement that underscores our dedication to China – one of our vital source markets. Fuelled by an ambitious tourism plan, which is underpinned by the Vision 2030 strategic framework, Saudia’s historic ‘Wings of Connection’ expansion into Beijing will help us welcome over 4 million Chinese visitors to Saudi by 2030.
“Today, Saudi is expanding at a breakneck pace, with our vibrant tourism sector offering the most significant developments in the world,” explained Aldabbagh. “We eagerly await the arrival of Chinese travellers to the authentic home of Arabia, where they will embark on an exploration of Saudi’s ancient culture, unique heritage and unrivalled natural offerings.”
Saudia will operate four weekly flights between the Kingdom and Beijing, with direct flights from Jeddah and Riyadh.
In March 2023, Saudia said that the flag carrier and its budget carrier subsidiary Flyadeal were aiming to add a combined total of 25 new destinations to the group’s network.
Buoyed by a strong and large domestic market, in addition to its burgeoning international network, Saudia is putting itself at the top of global traffic growth leagues.
In the first six months of 2023, it handled 13.7 million passengers on both domestic and international routes, representing a 24% increase compared to the same period last year. It operated 85,400 flights, a growth of 6%. Notably, the increase in flying was accompanied by an improvement in the airline’s on-time performance, with overall flight punctuality reaching 86.3%.
International traffic saw a 52% increase in the first half of 2023, with a total of 7.4 million passengers. On domestic routes Saudia transported 6.3 million passengers.
In the first half of 2023, Saudia inaugurated three new international destinations: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; London Gatwick; and Nice in France.
The expansion of Saudia is fuelled by a significant investment in its already large fleet. As of August, the carrier’s fleet had grown to 144 aircraft with Boeing 777s, 787 Dreamliners and A330s on the widebody front, and narrowbody A320s and A321s.
In March, Saudi announced an order for 39 more 787s with options for 10 more. The agreement will include both 787-9 and 787-10 models.
“The deal is in addition to the existing order of 38 new aircraft Saudia is expected to receive by 2026,” said Al-Omar.
In July Saudia ordered a new type, the A321neo, with 20 to enter service by 2026. The A321neos will seat 180 to 220 passengers in a typical two-class interior layout.
One of Saudia’s largest annual operational challenges is the pilgrimage season, with the Hajj being most important. This is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which is a duty for Muslims to carry out at least once in their lifetime.
At the beginning of August, Saudia announced the conclusion of the Hajj season 2023 operations, with the final flight from Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Medina to Surabaya City in Indonesia carrying 465 pilgrims home.
Saudia Group aircraft, including a batch of wet-leased aircraft to supplement the airline’s capacity, provided 1.2 million seats for over 100 scheduled destinations in addition to seasonal destinations.
The carrier said it is already planning for the Hajj Season 2024, which will align with the goals of Saudi Vision 2030, and it is aiming to increase the number of destinations to serve and transport more pilgrims.
While it will sharpen its focus on pilgrimage traffic, in addition to capturing more O&D (origin and destination) and transit travellers, Saudia has one eye on future operations.
In October 2022, it became the first national carrier in the MENA region to invest in sustainable air mobility with plans to purchase 100 all-electric Lilium Jets.
Saudia and Lilium, the developer of an all-electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) jet, signed an MOU for the proposed development and operation by the airline of an eVTOL network across Saudi Arabia. The service is intended to feed Saudia’s hubs for business-class travellers.
“Saudia, building on its commitment to be an industry-leading airline committed to sustainability, considers its eVTOL network project with Lilium to be an undertaking of great significance for the Kingdom’s aviation industry and will contribute effectively to spurring sustainable tourism in Saudi using zero-emission aviation,” said Koshy.
The Lilium Jet initiative is subject to the aircraft becoming certified and meeting performance requirements, but it is another example of Saudia looking ahead, and a demonstration of its aspirations to join the ranks of the globe’s leading carriers.