Published in June 2016 issue

Saudi Arabian Airlines has taken delivery of its first two Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, strengthening its relationship with the American manufacturer, which goes back to the early 1950s when the airline took delivery of its first Boeing 720. Join Michael Kelly on the exclusive Delivery Flight from the Boeing Delivery Center to Jeddah, on Saudia’s first Dreamliner.

By Michael Kelly

In 1945, the government of the United States presented a Douglas DC-3 to King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia. A few months later, the kingdom acquired four additional DC-3s, sowing the seeds for the growth of the flag carrier established in September 1946.

Now in its 70th year, Saudi Arabian Airlines (SV) has embarked upon a new era, taking delivery, on February 4, 2016, of its first two Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners. It’s the continuation of the enduring relationship between the carrier and the American airframer, a tie that goes back to the early 1950s, when the airline took delivery of the revolutionary aircraft of that time: the Boeing 720.

THE DAWN OF AN ERA

The delivery to Saudia of its first Dreamliners was a major event for both the airline and Boeing. It seldom happens that an airline takes delivery of three aircraft at once, but this is just what happened at Paine Field (PAE), the Boeing facility just north of Seattle. On the airport’s ramp, two Dreamliners and a 777-300(ER) were readied for a three-ship simultaneous delivery to Jeddah. I would join airline executives, media, and crew onboard the second 787 scheduled to depart.

For the carrier, it was the realization of years of collaboration with Boeing. Both parties had worked closely together since the airline had placed an order for eight Dreamliners in 2010, arranging the interior design, colors, seating configuration, among other things.

On the evening of February 2, top executives of Boeing, including Ray Conner, and Saudi Arabian Airlines, led by His Excellency Eng. Saleh bin Nasser al-Jasser, came together at the Boeing Delivery Center for the acceptance ceremony. As the guests dined and listened to speeches, they could not miss the new aircraft parked just outside, awaiting their first long-haul runs to their new home more than 7,500 miles (12,070km) away.

The next morning, airline executives and media gathered at the stunning Boeing Delivery Center, waiting to board the flight to Jeddah. Boeing had prepared a buffet-style brunch for the travelers, who were distributed between the two 787s.

I had the opportunity to board the second aircraft, registered HZ-ARB (MSN 41545/LN 379), as flight SV9012. It was scheduled to depart 15 minutes after HZ-ARA (MSN 41544/ LN 376), or flight SV9010. Finally, the Triple Seven, HZ-AK30 (MSN 42268/LN 1369) would depart 15 minutes after my flight.

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All three aircraft would follow each other on the planned route, bringing us out of the United States to Canada, and afterwards to the south of Iceland and across the north Atlantic to cross the Scottish coast at Stornoway. From there, we would be routed over the Netherlands, Germany, down the Eastern side of Italy to Brindisi, Crete, and into North Africa over Sidi- Barrani, Egypt, and onto Luxor, before crossing the Red Sea to land at Jeddah.

No boarding calls were made, but I could see that the room was slowly emptying. Eventually, it came our turn to board. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), everyone had to go through a strict airport-style security screening with the usual boarding pass and passport checks. I may be old fashioned, but I did like my hand-written boarding pass for seat 6L!


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THE SAUDI DREAMLINER

The effort Boeing has put into improving the passenger experience is quite noticeable from the moment you board. The most distinguishable feature is the larger window size compared to other aircraft types.

Seating configuration on Saudia’s 787s is 3-3-3 in Economy (274) and 1-2-1 in Business (24). The 787s do not feature the First Class cabin found on the Saudi fleet’s 777s. The new interiors were designed by Honour Branding, which partnered with Acumen Design Associates to aid in SV’s cabin design.The London-based design studio already had a long history with Saudia, starting back in 2009. It launched SV’s new brand identity in 2012, in parallel with the carrier joining SkyTeam. The Business cabin uses the BE Aerospace Super Diamond seat.

As I settled into seat 6L, I was immediately impressed by the amount of storage space available. For power, I had direct access to two USB ports and an AC power socket. The IFE screen was large, and folded back neatly for takeoff and landing. If I had an issue with the seating, it was the three-point safety belt. The ‘herringbone’ seating arrangement means that you have to strain slightly to get your face close to the window, and I found the belt too restrictive for my liking.

Having settled into my seat, I was handed a commemorative menu for the flight. Prior to departure, a date and small cup of Arabic coffee were served—a nice local touch that impressed me. This was followed by a prayer for the journey, a recitation of an invocation by the Prophet Mohammed.

The Flight Attendants (FA) handed out ‘Aigner’ amenity packs containing slippers, a light top, and light bottoms for sleeping. The Thales 3D map IFE system showed that our flight time would be 14 hours and 8 minutes—but, with some tail winds expected, I knew it would be shorter. Our planned initial altitude would be 35,000ft, with a two-step climb to 39,000 and 41,000ft before descending for a landing at King Abdulaziz International Airport Jeddah (JED) on runway 34C. Our alternate airport was Medina (OEMA).

We watched as the first 787 departed and, just 15 minutes later, we were lined up on the runway. Just after becoming airborne, I had a lemon and mint drink, my first ever, which is now up there as one of my favorites. After a short while, lunch was served. The onboard chef checked often to make sure that everything was fine and that I was happy with my choices. A light dinner was served later and, before arrival in Jeddah, a tasty breakfast followed. All in all, a superb culinary experience that enabled me to sample Arab cuisine at its best.

Although I did not watch any of the offered movies, I was pleasantly surprised at the selection, which included recent releases and plenty of channels—including comedy, lifestyle, business, sports, documentaries, and plenty of music channels—all of which were offered in both English and Arabic. The entertainment options did not end with the IFE choice. Saudia has partnered with OnAir to supply WiFi connectivity onboard. I did try to use the service, but found it problematic, with poor speeds and dropping connections. Eventually, I gave up on it.

The Thales-supplied 3D system on Saudi Arabian Airlines’ 787s is excellent. Although the information provided is basically the same on nearly all aircraft, Thales has done a wonderful job in how it is presented. The 3D maps are really good, and one of the better additions is the ability to highlight points of interest. You can also get a 3D-forward view that superimposes an almost HUD-like display on the screen, showing your heading, ground speed, and altitude.

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Boeing makes a fuss about the fact that the Dreamliner is designed to fly with cabin pressure set at 6,000 feet, whereas almost all other long-haul aircraft, including the rest of the Boeing stable, fly with an 8,000 feet equivalent pressure. Boeing research shows that the Dreamliner’s setting enables passengers to complete long-haul flights feeling much better and less fatigued. I am aware that everyone is different but, after this over 13-hour flight, I did arrive feeling a lot fresher and less tired than I had expected to.

Although we were the second aircraft to depart Boeing’s Paine Field facility, we were the first Dreamliner to land in Jeddah. HZ-ARA had been met over Jeddah by the Royal Saudi Air Force display team, the Saudi Hawks, flying the British Aerospace Hawk jet trainer. It escorted the Dreamliner over Jeddah with colored smoke trailing—a very fitting welcome to the new airliner. We watched from inside our aircraft while the display flew over the airfield. When SV9010 landed, we followed it onto the special welcome ramp and were afforded a customary water cannon salute. In the distance, I could see the new Boeing 777 arriving and taxiing to its own stand.

Looking back, there is no doubt in my mind that the company has very much upped its game and is deserving of accolades for the product it is bringing to its customers. The crew was knowledgeable, courteous, friendly, and impeccably turned out. I found my food to be excellent, although I had not previously tried any of the dishes offered on board. The lack of alcohol on this flight did not bother me at all. Culturally, I fully understand and appreciate the issues involved. And, with the apparent increase in air rage incidents attributed to alcohol consumption, non-alcohol flights may more generally be the way forward.

Would I consider flying with Saudi Arabian Airlines again? Absolutely. And I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone. Go for it. You will experience something special.