How Saudia Became The Middle East’s Largest Airline

Saudia is the Middle East’s largest airline this summer. It has overtaken Emirates and Qatar Airways, mainly thanks to its big domestic network that is still robust despite coronavirus. Saudia now has 158 aircraft, of which 103 are widebodies and 55 are narrowbodies.

Saudia is the Middle East’s largest airline this summer. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Saudia is now the Middle East’s top airline

While Emirates and Qatar Airways hog the limelight because of their enormous hub-and-spoke networks and well-promoted hard products, Saudia is the Middle East’s largest airline this summer. This is based on analyzing planned seat capacity for every airline in the region based on schedules supplied by the carriers to OAG. The top-10 are shown below.

  1. Saudia: 20.36 million round-trip seats this summer
  2. Emirates: 19.88 million
  3. Qatar Airways: 18.69 million
  4. Etihad Airways: 7.26 million
  5. Flydubai 6.41 million
  6. Flynas: 4.56 million
  7. Turkish Airlines: 4.07 million
  8. Air Arabia: 3.98 million
  9. Oman Air: 3.21 million
  10. Mahan Air: 3.14 million
Saudia has four non-stop routes to the US: both Jeddah and Riyadh to JFK and Dulles. Photo: Getty Images

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Up from third

Despite a travel ban from 20 countries, Saudia has risen from third place in summer 2019 (S19) to first because of overtaking Emirates (which was top and is now second) and Qatar Airways (second and now third).

This was helped by much bigger cuts at the UAE and Qatar carriers: Emirates is down by 52% while it’s 33% for Qatar Airways. In contrast, Saudia has reduced by ‘just’ 26%.

Saudia’s pole position is all about its large domestic network – something that others don’t have. And it remains relatively strong, down as it is by a mere 7%. Indeed, the carrier’s expansive domestic operation means it is also the Middle East’s top airline by total flights, although it slips to third if available seat miles are considered. This makes complete sense given its short domestic routes and large fleet of narrowbodies.

Most of Saudia’s fleet comprises widebodies, but narrowbodies, especially the A320, are important too. Indeed, the A320 is the carrier’s top aircraft domestically. Photo: Anna Zvereva via Wikimedia.

Saudia’s top countries

Saudia plans to serve 34 countries on a passenger basis this summer, down from 41 in S19. Domestic service now accounts for over six in ten seats. Its top-10 countries are as follows.

  1. Saudi Arabia: 12.51 million seats
  2. Egypt: 1.36 million
  3. United Arab Emirates: 1.10 million
  4. Pakistan: 960,000
  5. India: 744,000
  6. Bangladesh: 527,000
  7. Sudan: 387,000
  8. Indonesia: 346,000
  9. Turkey: 328,000
  10. UK: 215,000

The UK is the only new country on the list, up from 12th in S19. It has replaced Malaysia, which was 10th and is now 11th. Saudi Arabia is an ‘amber’ country for the UK, meaning that quarantining and testing are required on arrival into the UK. In mid-August, Saudia will serve Heathrow 14-weekly: seven each from both Jeddah and Riyadh.

The importance of visiting friends and relatives (VFR) and pilgrimage demand is clear to see, including in Saudia’s top-10 routes. Image: GCMap.

Top international routes this summer

Jeddah to Cairo is Saudia’s leading route, the same as in S19, although cuts have reduced it by almost half. In August, it’ll have 35 weekly departures on the 755-mile sector, all by A330-300s.

  1. Jeddah-Cairo: 628,000 seats
  2. Riyadh-Dubai: 559,000
  3. Riyadh-Cairo: 411,000
  4. Jeddah-Dubai: 377,000
  5. Jeddah-Jakarta: 346,000
  6. Jeddah-Dhaka: 342,000
  7. Jeddah-Khartoum: 256,000
  8. Jeddah-Lahore: 217,000
  9. Jeddah-Istanbul: 205,000
  10. Jeddah-Islamabad: 200,000
Saudia has five B787-10s. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying.

Jeddah remains Saudia’s main airport for international flights, although the gap between it and the country’s capital, Riyadh, has reduced significantly. This is likely to be because of coronavirus.

Indeed, pre-pandemic, Saudia had been clear on how it wished to develop a ‘true’ hub-and-spoke system at Jeddah. Key in this was the inauguration of terminal one in September 2019 with 45 contact stands and an initial capacity of 30 million passengers.

What do you think will come of its Jeddah hub? Comment below!

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