Saudi Arabia is preparing to launch its new national airline “very soon”, setting up a key pillar of the kingdom’s Vision 2030, a plan that aims to attract three times as many foreign tourists by the end of the decade.
The carrier, to be based at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, will play a central role in the Saudis’ plan to kick-start the country’s “golden era of travel” and transform it into one of the leading aviation hubs in the Middle East.
In May, Saudi officials announced an aviation strategy targeting 250 direct destinations, tripling traffic and the creation of a new carrier.
Mohammed Alkhuraisi, vice president of strategy and business intelligence at Saudi Arabia's General Authority of Civil Aviation, told The National on Wednesday that the final touches are being made to plans to unveil the carrier.
“I know it’s going to fly very soon,” he said at the Farnborough International Airshow in the UK.
Mr Alkhuraisi declined to say how many jobs the project aims to create, but pointed out that Vision 2030 aims to open up 1.1 million roles in multiple sectors.
The aviation sector is key to the success of the plan, he said, and will prove to be “really crucial” in the delivery of the ambitious goal.
“Aviation enables multiple sectors: tourism, trade, foreign direct investments, bilateral, relationships with different countries,” he said.
“The full tourism strategy can be enabled by strong aviation.
“We want to attract 100 million tourists by 2030, and need to ensure you have the right capacity.”
The introduction of a new airline, which will operate alongside the national carrier Saudia — formerly Saudi Arabian Airlines — will play a major role in the government’s plan to diversity its economy, boost tourism and reduce reliance on oil.
Sustainability is at the heart of the plan and increasing the number of women in the workforce is also high up on the agenda.
The plan is expected to propel Saudi Arabia to fifth position in terms of global air passenger traffic.
Mr Alkuraisi said the kingdom is seeking to capitalise on its strategic location and serve as a hub for connections between Africa, Asia and Europe.
The global aviation sector is grappling with staff shortages amid a sudden bounce back in demand for travel, and here have been scenes of chaos at airports in the UK and across Europe in recent weeks.
Mr Alkhuraisi said the Saudi aviation sector is making strong gains in terms of passenger numbers as international travel reopens, and has been spared the issues blighting airports in other regions.
The promising signs mean Gaca is confident input to Vision 2030 will go to plan.
“Month-on-month, I think we have recovered [to reach] pre-pandemic levels for the month of June for example,” he said.
“It’s a great signal.
“We’re recovering faster than everyone anticipated. Previously, we were saying 2024 to 2026 to restore pre-pandemic levels.
"Today, we’re seeing a very speedy recovery which is pushing us to be more ready in terms of airport infrastructure, human capital, as well as the overall readiness.
“So, we’re very comfortable and we’re seeing very promising signs of a speedy recovery.”
During a speech at Farnborough, in southern England, on Wednesday, Mr Alkhuraisi announced a cut to airport landing and take-off fees for airlines using airports in Saudi Arabia.
“I am very happy to announce today at Farnborough that Saudi Arabia is reducing airport charges for all airlines coming to the kingdom by between 10 and 35 per cent,” he said.
The move comes on the back of a row between carriers and airports.
Airlines' trade body the International Air Transport Association has accused airports of hiking fees to unreasonable levels as they seek to recoup massive losses incurred during the pandemic at the expense of carriers, which are also trying to recover.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to slash airport charges comes amid tough competition from established global hubs in the region, including the UAE and Qatar.