PIF-backed Riyadh Air discussing narrow-body jet order with Boeing and Airbus

The new carrier is evaluating 737 Max and A320 Neo family of jets that include A320s and A321s, chief executive Tony Douglas says

Riyadh Air chief executive Tony Douglas said the new carrier obtained its International Air Transport Association code on Sunday. Bloomberg
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Saudi Arabia's new carrier Riyadh Air is in discussions with Boeing and Airbus over the order of narrow-body aircraft as it builds a large fleet from scratch to serve 100 destinations by 2030, its chief executive has said.

The airline is considering Boeing 737 Max and Airbus A320 Neo jets but a decision has yet to be made, Tony Douglas told The National on the sidelines of the 79th annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (Iata) on Sunday.

Riyadh Air's first order in March – for 39 Boeing 787 wide-body planes, with options for 33 more, to handle long-haul flights – “will not be the last order we will make this year”, Mr Douglas said.

“We're in the middle of a narrow-body campaign at the moment and all of our energy is focused on concluding that so we can make an announcement,” he said.

“It won't be any earlier than the Paris Air Show and it won't be any later than the Dubai Airshow,” he said, referring to two major aviation events scheduled for June 19 and November 13, respectively.

The discussions are “technically complicated”, with a decision depending on factors such as engine selections and air frame availability, he said.

However, Mr Douglas did not provide details on the size of the order.

Adding to the complexity is the ability of the plane makers to deliver new aircraft amid continuing supply chain problems and growing order backlogs as airlines scramble to secure new jets to meet a surge in post-coronavirus travel demand.

“The market is now showing all the signs of recovery that we've been praying for a long time and that just makes it more challenging when you're looking to have a big fleet quickly, which is what we're looking to do,” Mr Douglas said.

Riyadh Air was officially unveiled in March as part of Saudi Arabia's plans to make the economy less dependent on oil.

The kingdom is focused on growing non-oil sectors such as tourism, aviation and hospitality. It has set a goal of serving 330 million passengers and attracting 100 million visitors by 2030.

The new airline is wholly owned by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, which has about $620 billion in assets under management and backs strategic sectors central to the kingdom's economic diversification plans.

Riyadh Air is building its fleet of aircraft to reach 100 destinations by 2030, after it starts operations in early 2025.

Asked about the markets that Riyadh Air plans to enter, Mr Douglas said it was a “bit early to go into specifics”.

“However, all of Europe's main capital cities, most of the Far East's major capitals and great connectivity to North America is not a bad place to start,” he said. “And that is before you get closer to home, which requires world-class connectivity into the regional capital cities.”

The airline will start announcing flight schedules in 12 months to 14 months, he said.

Riyadh Air is also seeking to build its workforce and has posted online job advertisements for pilots, cabin crew, engineers and other staff.

In the 13 weeks since its advertisements appeared on its website, the airline received 336,000 applications, with 150,000 of these from Saudi Arabia, Mr Douglas said.

“We're the hottest ticket in town,” Mr Douglas said. “It gives an illustration that there's a lot of interest because it's a start-up, it has got a fresh, modern brand … everybody loves commercial aviation and there's absolute clarity from [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] that it's going to happen.”

'First impressions' at 40,000 feet

Mr Douglas said Riyadh Air aims to boost the kingdom's air connectivity, complement its economic diversification plans and match its ambitions to become one of the top 15 global economies by 2030 as it unveils its big tourism projects.

“If you're spending trillions and trillions of dollars into delivering experiences like Neom, Al Ula, the Red Sea project and Diriyah, not just to citizens but to international guests, the reality is the first impressions of the kingdom for many will be at 40,000 feet,” Mr Douglas said.

“We've deliberately set out to present something that's just at a completely different level.”

Despite the kingdom's land mass and its population of more than 30 million people, Riyadh is “one of the least well-connected capital cities” and Riyadh Air will fill that gap.

The airline “is not trying to springboard way ahead of anybody else to start off with; I would describe this as a catch-up because the kingdom needs better connectivity”, he said.

Riyadh Air will not offer first-class cabin berths on its aircraft as the cost of the luxurious seats does not justify the returns, Mr Douglas said.

“The rationale is that most first-class [offering are] charitable in the sense that you struggle to recover the actual cost of its provision through ticket sales. There's a number of exciting options to give an absolute premium product but delivered in a far more efficient way,” he said.

The airline will detail its cabin plans in the first quarter of 2024, he said.

On Sunday, Riyadh Air also unveiled its new plane livery and announced its Iata code “RX”.

The purple represents the lavender that grows in the wild in the kingdom, the dark blue represents the desert night sky and the lighter shade of blue represents the sky during the day, Mr Douglas said.

The logo shows three elements – the cabin window that represents the joy of travel, the bird's wing that symbolises flight and Arabic calligraphy with a modern twist, he said.

Updated: June 05, 2023, 3:42 PM