Published in May 2015 issue

By Andreas Rohde

Originally founded in 1946 as the Saudi Arabian Airlines Corporation, Saudia (Saudi Arabian Airlines) can look back on a proud history as one of the oldest traditional air carriers of the Middle East. Yet, over the past two decades, Saudia has experienced a dramatic loss of market share on some of its scheduled networks.

Saudia flight operations started as early as March 1947, with a fleet of DC-3s and technical assistance from Trans World Airlines (TWA). After only a few years of local services, Saudia expanded its network to include long-range destinations, which were served with DC-4 equipment in the 1950s, and were later upgraded to Boeing 720 jets in 1962, thereby making Saudia one of the first jet operators in the region. Saudia also belonged to the early customers for wide-body jetliners and introduced the Lockheed Tristar and Boeing 747 in 1975 and 1977, respectively. At the same time, the network grew to include destinations from America to the Far East. Yet, developments at Saudia were soon overshadowed by the rise of competing carriers from the region, such as Gulf Air and Kuwait Airways.

More recently, the loss of market share has accelerated with the rise of new, high-class contenders in the area, notably Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad. For the past two decades, Saudia has continuously lost market share to the Gulf carriers, and its once-bright image has considerably faded. Only in one event Saudia still reigns supreme—the Hadj pilgrimage. During this annual mass pilgrimage, Saudia carries the bulk of pilgrims, for which the airline regularly charters wide-body jetliners from around the world. Its day-to-day business, however, has become less glamorous.

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BOOKING & CHECK-IN

For a recent flight from Riyadh to Frankfurt, there were several flight options available. All those with the well-known Gulf carriers required a departure at very inconvenient times, as did the Lufthansa non-stop service, the latter leaving Riyadh at 00:30 local time. I opted for Saudia merely for the more convenient 09:35 departure time. The ticket was finally booked by our company’s agency via the Amadeus reservation system for a total fare of US $727.64.

For early check-in, I chose Saudia’s web check-in, which the airline offers from 24 up to three hours before departure. Unfortunately, the Saudia system did not accept my frequent- flyer card from SkyTeam partner KLM. Neither did the check-in staff, thus requiring a post-flight credit via the KLM Flying Blue website, including the necessity to upload my ticket and boarding pass.

At Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport, Saudia Flight SV 179 departed from Terminal 2, where I first had to have my baggage screened before accessing the checkin counters. Terminal 2 is used exclusively by Saudi carriers Saudia and NAS Air, with Economy Class check-in on one side of the building and Premium Class check-in on the other. The counters appeared overdue for renovation, but the personnel were friendly. Check-in was negotiated in about ten minutes, before passing through the central immigration and security control. Generally, the terminal building has a distinctive local touch, and its concrete structure is painted in the colors of its surrounding desert. Inside, the gates are arranged around a central duty-free area, which is adequate for an international gateway. A couple of food stands offer snacks and drinks, all of which accept only local currency for payment. Large windows offer views over the ramp and the parked aircraft, but, overall, the airport experience falls short of the counterparts in the Gulf States.

The gate counter remained unoccupied until five minutes before boarding time. Then, however, boarding started immediately.

Although Saudia employs a long-range fleet of Airbus A330s, Boeing 777-200/300s, as well as 747- 400s, on this particular six-and-a-half hour service, Saudia flies the narrow-body Airbus A320, which makes it one of the longest scheduled routes for this type in the world. On its international services, Saudia flies the A320 with a large Business Class, with 20 seats in two-by-two layout. Economy Class starts at the overwing exits, the forward pair of which is deactivated due to the aircraft’s reduced seating capacity. Upon my asking one of the flight attendants about the Economy capacity, she could not tell, “120, maybe!” was her answer; however 96 would have been correct (by author’s count). After all passengers had finally settled in, the crew offered newspapers from a service cart.

DEPARTURE & BREAKFAST

Pushback initiated 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and, at the planned departure time, we were already airborne, turning on course overhead the city of Riyadh.


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Once released, the crew distributed amenity kits containing socks, an eyeshade, a toothbrush and earplugs, as well as menu cards.

Approximately one hour into the flight, the crew started serving a hot breakfast with a choice of omelet with potato wedges and mushroom ragout, egg ejah with coriander potatoes and ratatouille, or a “Gourmet Cheese Plate.” I opted for the first choice; however, the taste was less than “Gourmet.” In fact, the omelet was completely tasteless and the mushrooms fared little better. The five pieces of potato at least were tasty. The hot meal came with a bread roll and a croissant, butter and jam, soft cheese and a tiny pre-packed bag of fruit bites. The tray also contained a cup of water and a small bottle of orange juice. While serving the meals, the flight attendants offered additional tea or coffee. Although it is well known that Saudia does not serve alcoholic drinks, we were not offered any other liquid variations, such as soft drinks.

As the meal trays were being collected, the flight was progressing across Saudi Arabia towards the Egyptian resort town of Sharm-el-Sheik, thereafter crossing the Sinai Peninsula towards Al Qahira (Cairo), where the entertainment highlight of this flight was provided by a view over the pyramids of Gizeh. Spotting this man-made structure, built four-and-a-half thousand years ago, from 36,000 feet is a truly awe-inspiring experience!

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IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT?

The rest of the entertainment options included the airline’s Ahlan Wasahlan in-flight magazine, an airshow that played on the cabin monitors and onboard Wi-Fi. The free version of the latter allows access to the airshow, a news channel (not working on this flight), a choice of five TV programs, seven Islamic channels, or a choice of 19 different movies.

After scrolling through the entertainment options, it was time to take a little rest and try what the seat had to offer. Seat pitch was good at 32 inches, but with limited recline. The leather-covered seats were equipped with adjustable headrests and a footrest under the seat in front, which, in my opinion, was more an annoyance than useful. Some of the seats also had a coat hanger, but not all. A pillow and a blanket were provided on every seat. Compared to the seats offered by competing airlines from this region, but crediting that this aircraft has no middle-block seating, the seat evaluation will result in an average grading.

As the flight progressed, the originally clean washrooms started resembling their counterparts in Riyadh more and more, with flooded floors and used toilet paper stuffed almost everywhere—a mess that did not seem to bother the crew. In general, the crew left a less-than-enthusiastic impression and smiles were rarely seen. Also, except for the welcome announcement, all others were prerecorded.

SNACK SERVICE & ARRIVAL

One hour and 15 minutes before landing, overhead northern Italy, a second meal was served, this time a small tray with a selection of sandwich slices, a bread roll, one small chocolate bar and prepackaged water. Additionally, tea and coffee were on offer, but no other drinks.

This service was followed by a sale of duty-free goods and, finally, while on approach to Frankfurt, everyone was offered a mini-candy from a basket.

After an airtime of six hours and 35 minutes, a fairly firm touchdown on Frankfurt’s Runway 25-Left finally ensured everyone was awake when blocking in at Terminal 2 after an exact seven-hour block time.

Once off the aircraft, a clean and usable restroom definitely was high on the wish list, before finally retrieving my baggage 12 minutes after arrival.

OVERALL IMPRESSION

This editor well remembers times when Saudia offered widebody services to Frankfurt, but the downgrading to a 116-seat aircraft, on which one third of the seats remained unoccupied, marks a dramatic loss of market share, at a time when competing airlines have upgraded to multiple daily wide-body services—and this flight clearly showed why. Saudia’s Riyadh hub is no match to the region’s other gateways. Additionally, visa regulations practically rule out any transit stops, thereby principally confining Saudia to local traffic only. Yet, compared to its competition, Saudia offers the most convenient travel times on this city pair. Seating comfort was ok, but onboard amenities did not match the likes of Emirates, etc. Food quality was disappointing, and the range of drinks was the poorest experienced by this editor on any airline, so far. Overall, this leaves room for improvements in many respects, to make the onboard experience as bright as the airline’s beautiful paint scheme.