His Excellency Eng. Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser, Director General of Saudi Arabian Airlines, details a new phase in the company’s history as it undergoes rapid expansion.
Saudia was an aviation success story in 2017. Passenger numbers soared, more destinations were added and new aircraft acquired. And with a "game-changing" hub airport set to open in Jeddah later this year, even further growth is anticipated. His Excellency Eng. Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser explains the key factors behind the airline’s resurgence.
Are you happy with the airline’s performance in 2017 and what about your targets for 2018?
2017 was a remarkable year for Saudia. We were pleased to receive the Skytrax award for the World’s Most Improved Airline of 2017. The airline achieved in a single year many milestones never accomplished before.
In addition to the Skytrax award, we also received accolades for inflight entertainment and connectivity, amenity kits, our children’s program, ancillaries, and catering.
This could not have been done without the commitment from our team members. We achieved results that were unprecedented in the airline’s 73-year history.
Saudia embarked on a Transformation Plan in the middle of 2015, and so the turnaround efforts and deliverables began to surface within a relatively short span of time, and will continue on until 2020. The focus has been on increasing guest numbers; a revitalization of the overall product and guest experience; increasing the number of destinations and frequencies, which are all part of the initiatives under the plan.
As Saudi Arabia’s national carrier, we are committed to supporting the pillars of the Vision 2030, which includes increasing the number of visitors to the country from all corners of the globe. The visitor demographic is largely religious and business traffic, which will soon also expand to include leisure and tourism.
“The airline achieved in a single year many milestones never accomplished before”
What improvements have made the anticipated return to profit in 2019 possible?
In general, our focus has been on operating costs, as this is where the majority of the expenses are derived. We conducted reviews of all our operations and services to identify areas to minimize wastage and redundancy. A number of cost efficiencies have been implemented, which are mainly operational in nature.
This has been a substantial exercise that, in turn, allowed us to introduce new products onboard, which is an area that Saudia is investing in. The guest experience is of great importance to us, and we are very committed to ensuring that all of our guests feel the unique Saudia hospitality and have memorable journeys with us.
The airline is expanding rapidly, with new aircraft and new destinations. What’s supporting this growth?
Rapid expansion is a very accurate reflection of Saudia’s strategy. We received 32 new aircraft in 2017, and 28 the year prior to that, taking us to 60 new carriers in the fleet within a two-year period. This means that we received a new aircraft, on average, every 11 days.
- 89 destinations are served by Saudia across four continents
- 143 is the number of aircraft in Saudia's fleet
- Saudia became the SkyTeam alliance's 16th global member on May 2012
- 20 plus destinations are served by the airline's cargo division - Saudi Airlines Cargo - with a dedicated cargo fleet
The new aircraft are the Airbus A330-300 Regional, Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and the B777-300 fitted with our new ‘First Suite’ – Saudia’s latest First Class product.
In addition to fleet expansion, our international passenger numbers have risen to double-digits; 14% growth in a single year, which is unprecedented in the airline’s history. When put into context of Saudia’s position in the Middle East, the pace at which we have been growing has been planned for, and is aligned with our strategy. It is also aligned with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s new visitor targets.
In addition, we have the new Jeddah Airport opening later this year, which will enable us to significantly redesign our network and hub, and gives us the latitude to increase our fleet as well.
The opening of the new airport will be a game-changer for Saudia. It will be a new chapter in the airline’s history as our hub will allow us to welcome additional passengers that are transiting onwards to other points across our network.
Presently, our network expansion has largely been impeded by space availability at Jeddah’s existing King Abdulaziz International Airport where we have already surpassed the annual passenger capacity threshold.
Currently, Saudia covers 89 destinations across four continents, and the opening of the new airport in Jeddah presents an opportunity for more guests to travel with the airline.
Passenger load factors and cargo payloads have consistently been increasing in the Middle East region. There is an appetite for travel and, in particular, an opportunity to expand our cargo sector and also operate new routes to high growth and leisure markets.
What is the thinking behind setting up flyadeal?
The newly launched flyadeal is a sister-company of Saudia and is fully owned by Saudi Arabian Airlines corporation, the aviation conglomerate consisting of 11 companies.
Flyadeal is a standalone entity and is a low-fare carrier, with its own dedicated fleet that targets the growing market of travelers who wish to find a low-cost solution to meet their travel needs, without paying for additional services. Low-cost carriers provide greater choice for local travel within the domestic market. Ultimately, lower fares will enable more people to travel, encouraging trade and tourism.
Since its launch, which was on Saudi Arabia’s national day, September 23 2017, flyadeal has been operating to domestic stations only, but there are plans to open international routes in the near future.
The strategy from the beginning has been to keep the two brands separate. There is a steady increase in demand in the domestic market, for point-to-point traffic around Saudi Arabia. Few are aware, but there are 27 airports in the Kingdom, with limited domestic air travel capacity to keep pace with demand.
While Saudia does fly to all points within the Kingdom, flyadeal will complement the national carrier by allowing for a shift in focus to expand long-haul services, freeing up aircraft and crew on the domestic routes to grow the brand, while ensuring the domestic market is well served.
How important is the Hajj seasonal traffic to the airline?
The passenger traffic during the Hajj period is significant; and we are proud to have increased our number of Hajj guests 40% compared with the previous Hajj season.
The airline carries Hajj passengers on regular scheduled services, and also on dedicated chartered services. We work with external partners on chartered services to deploy high-density aircraft on routes with high demand. In line with Vision 2030 and the Kingdom’s preparations to welcome additional visitors for the purposes of religious and cultural tourism, Saudia has focused on markets where increased traffic is expected, particularly in the East.
Is SkyTeam benefitting you and do alliances still have a role to play?
Saudia joined SkyTeam in 2012 and membership in the alliance has provided many advantages for our guests. They enjoy the benefits that come with being a member of a global alliance. Lounge access, seamless ticketing and baggage transfer with one booking, and frequent flyer miles and loyalty points are just a few of the advantages.
As our passenger numbers increase—especially to long-haul destinations—having access to an alliance becomes more critical, especially for connections to secondary or niche cities, and seasonal leisure destinations.
Lastly, with the opening of the new Jeddah International Airport, there will be even more opportunities to reap value from the SkyTeam alliance, as the new infrastructure will enable greater transit traffic.
In light of the now-lifted PED ban, how important is it to harmonize security measures and for governments to cooperate?
In response to the PED bans, we immediately began discussing with the concerned governments’ agencies our rigorous security procedures, and started a dialogue of cooperation. Our objective was to ensure cooperation and implementation of any procedures and with time, the ban was lifted.
Saudia was founded as Saudi Arabian Airlines in 1945
The airline started with a single twin-engine DC-3 (Dakota) HZ-AAX given to King Abdul Aziz as a gift by the U.S. President Franklin D.Roosevelt.
Saudia has achieved New Distribution Capability Level 3 certification. Why does NDC excite you?
There is a sizable proportion of our guests who purchase their air tickets through a travel firm or agency. Therefore, we singled out the third-party travel agent platform.
When travel retailers were selling our product, they did not have access to content such as Wi-Fi packages, photographs of the cabin or seat layout, or any of the additional services we offer—such as travel insurance
or car rentals.
The NDC Level 3 certification allows us to showcase a modern look and feel to the travel agent platform, levelling out what is available today on the saudia.com website and making the NDC display comparable, so agents and retailers can clearly view and display our products to the end consumer.
If you could change one thing about aviation tomorrow, what would it be and why?
Increasing slot availability in high-volume airports. Certain airports have slot limitations, or lack availability of new slots altogether.
Aircraft landing slots are a critical part of building a route network, and having access to slot timings that match your network algorithm is a delicate balance.
Slot availability and especially, the desired timing is not always available, which can compromise network growth. Progressive work in the area of digital implementation and technology-based procedures may facilitate and expedite the boarding, taxi and departure processes.
Perhaps these steps may lead to more airlines having access to landing slots in the future.