First there was Emirates. Then there was Qatar Airways. Then there was Etihad. Collectively, these carriers are known as the “ME3” or the three big Persian Gulf carriers that command dominance in the region. But knocking on the door is Saudia, an airline actively pursuing the size and prestige of its ME3 brethren.
Saudia, then called Saudi Arabian Airlines, was founded in 1945 thanks to a gift from then U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The 32nd President gifted King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founders and first monarch of present-day Saudi Arabai, a Douglas DC-3. The airline began operations in September 1945 with TWA running it under a management contract.
Today, the Saudia commercial fleet consists of 162 aircraft and offers service to destinations across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the United States. And as the Kingdom looks beyond oil revenue, it sees a future in creating a hub much like Dubai or Doha that caters to international travelers from all over the world. Per Gulf News:
Economic reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman aim to lift total tourism spending in the kingdom — by local citizens as well as foreigners — to $46.6 billion (Dh171.1 billion) in 2020 from $27.9 billion in 2015, the government has said.
To that end, it has liberalized the commercial air market, allowing in more domestic competition. The result has been lower fares and a surge in traffic as flights increase while costs decrease.
While not providing specific numbers, Saudia reported that the number of transit passengers in 2018 was up 117% overall compared to 2017. Saudia’s fleet continues to grows, with plans to expand it beyond 200 aircraft by 2020. In the meantime, an overhaul of King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah will make Saudia’s main hub more user-friendly and assemble to religious pilgrims and connecting passengers.
Look for more marketing in the months to come as well as a more liberalized visa regime (that has been rumored for over a year).
But How Is Saudia Onboard?
Ok, so Saudia may be growing, but is it worth flying? I’ve been able to fly Saudia in economy, business, and first class over the years and can report that Saudia is an airline I would not hesitate to fly. With one exception, the flying experience has been quite pleasant (see reviews below). With Jeddah and Riyadh airports improving, the ground experience will soon match the in-air experience.
Read My Saudia Reviews:
- FIRST CLASS
- BUSINESS CLASS
- ECONOMY CLASS
And it merits mentioning that my old boss Jaan Albrecht, former CEO of Star Alliance and Austrian Airlines, has been at the help of Saudia since 2017 and is responsible for many of the improvements we have seen.
This boils down to a question of money. Does the Kingdom have the will and the patience to try to create a massive global carrier? Will it avoid the mistakes of Etihad? It’s too early to tell, but keep a close eye on Saudia. Every airline may have grand aspirations, but Saudia’s are far more realistic than others.