Can Saudia Compete With The Middle East Big 3 Carriers?

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It is well known among frequent travelers that Middle Eastern airlines Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar provide some of the best inflight service of any carriers in the world. These airlines are known as the big three Middle Eastern airlines (ME3). Today we’re going to look at another Middle Eastern airline, Saudia, and dive into the question “can Saudia compete with the Middle East 3”?

A Saudia Boeing 787. Photo: Wikimedia, edited by Simple Flying.

In addition to helping passengers recover their forgotten babies, Saudia is the flag carrier for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is the largest airline in the country. The airline is also a member of the SkyTeam alliance.

The carrier has made some progress recently in terms of inflight offerings and first class product. In fact, Pax International gave Saudia the award of “Best Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity” and “Best First Class Amenity Kit — Middle East” this year.

Saudia has added more than 1000 entertainment hours to its lineup, according to its website. The carrier also introduced a “free onboard messaging plan”, available on 104 of their aircraft. This plan provides free messaging on five popular applications (up to 10MBs). These apps include WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, WeChat, and Instagram chat.

Saudia is a member of the SkyTeam airline alliance Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The airline also reports that, since January, seven of its aircraft have been refurbished to include new seatback TV screens. These new aircraft are operating on routes from Saudi Arabia to Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna, Geneva, Milan, and Rome.

The Saudia fleet

The Saudia fleet are comprised of 148 aircraft with multiple manufacturers. 95 of the fleet are Airbus planes: 48 A330s, 32 A320s and 15 A321s. The remaining 63 are Boeing aircraft: 56 B777s and 7 B787s. However, there have been talks of fleet and route expansion by Saudia leadership.

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According to Air Transport World, Saudia CEO Jaan Albrecht says the carrier is evaluating a major widebody order within the next six months. This order could be either Airbus A350s or Boeing 787s. Albrecht also said his airline is considering new long-haul routes to North America. This expansion would certainly propel the company forward in competing with the ME3.

A Saudia Boeing 777 Photo: Flickr user airlines470

The potential for Jeddah

According to an Arab News article, Jeddah has been expanding King Abdulaziz International Airport recently. The airport claims to have the ability to handle up to 80 million passengers per year when it becomes fully operational. For comparison, this is similar to the passenger traffic that London Heathrow experienced in 2018.

Jeddah is a major port city on the Red Sea and a gateway for pilgrimages to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Plans are in place to be connect these holy cities via a Haramain high-speed rail project later this year. As Muslim pilgrims from all over the world travel to these cities, any infrastructure investments will be put to good use.

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Boeing’s senior managing director of market analysis for commercial airplanes, Darren Hulst, spoke to Arab News about the benefits Jeddah’s would have as an international hub:

“Saudi Arabia has got a similar geography (to other Gulf hubs) but a bigger local market, so there’s definitely a lot of potential still be to realized…If you have a local destination market that you can use as a base, it means your hub can be even more value.”

A Saudia Boeing 787 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Room for improvement

Aircraft improvements and a major airport expansion are solid steps towards competing with other airlines in the region. However, it’s clear that more needs to change in terms of the Saudia passenger experience. Below we see the SkyTrax ratings for the airline, which don’t look all that great.

Saudia’s current customer rankings on SkyTrax Photo: SkyTrax

In fact, for 2018, Saudia was ranked 52nd on a list of the World’s 100 Top Airlines. Down from 51 in 2017. One reviewer from the website has a clear opinion on whether Saudia can compete with the ME3:

Worst airline ever. Worst and filthiest airport (Jeddah) on planet Earth – I’ve seen cleaner pigsties. This airline cannot even remotely compete with the likes of Emirates or Qatar.
– D Norton (Switzerland)

Conclusion

It’s clear that Saudia is making some great leaps in improving its passenger service. The prospect of a fleet expansion and renewal will also allow it to better compete with its Middle Eastern rivals. However, based on current customer experience, there is still a long way to go.

Have you ever flown Saudia? What was your experience like? Let us know if you could ever see this airline competing with the likes of Emirates, Etihad, or Qatar!

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