Interview: Red Sea International Airport – Luxury Like Never Before

Interview: Red Sea International Airport – Luxury Like Never Before

DALLAS — As part of Saudi Arabia’s accelerated growth strategy, “Vision 2030,” one of the key projects in the kingdom is the Red Sea destination, which is expected to be up and running for visitors by mid-2023.

To up the standards at every avenue, the Red Sea International Airport (RSI) is a work of art in the making, designed to deliver pure luxury but with equality, I would emphasize. After all, the airport is most travelers’ first point of contact at their destination, so what if you gave them the best there’s ever been?

We want the five-star experience to start right at the airport. 95% of our guests would arrive through our new airport, so we’ve got to be ready to receive them. We’re under pressure to get ourselves fully certified and operationally ready.

Ian Williamson, Group Chief Projects Delivery Officer at Red Sea Global
Photo: RSI

Fostering a One-of-a-kind Airport


The foundation of the airport was laid in 2019 when the organization brought in Forster + Partners to design the airport wholly inspired by the colors, textures, and forms of the accompanying desert landscape. The location of the airport was strategically picked so that it would allow a 30- to 40-minute connection to all destinations along the Red Sea.

As for a second reason for the picked site, His Royal Highness made it clear that he did not want any aircraft turning or flying over the islands -90% of the project is an island based in a lagoon, abundant with corals.

The runway is 3700 meters long and can handle the world’s largest aircraft—it is Code F certified. For more aviation-based activity at the project, The Red Sea will run its very own seaplane service, for which a seaplane runway runs in parallel with the main runway and a dedicated seaplane terminal is also being set up just by the main terminal.

Ian Williamson, Group Chief Projects Delivery Officer at Red Sea Global, states, “We took a look at how these operations (seaplane operations) run in the Maldives, and we’ve geared it up a step, an extra level of sophistication”

Render: TRMC

A vast road network, and clean energy-powered speed boats and helicopters remain other means of heading to the islands from the airport. Under the project’s first phase, five islands are being developed, plus two inland sites, with a total of sixteen hotels, while three more islands have been mapped out, and work there has begun under phase 1B

The airport is built agnostic to what class ticket you buy, it is a luxury airport to all that arrive be it economy, business, or first – all guests are treated with equal status.
The layout of the terminal is split into 5 mini terminals called pods. Pods will be progressively opened If further capacity-based expansion is needed. Large canopies protrude from the roof of the terminal that will allow the airplanes to come under them and dock in, allowing passengers to disembark in shade to avoid the direct summer heat.

The Red Sea International Airport also features Saudi Arabia’s first-ever virtually controlled tower that demands high levels of camera technology to enable remote control and monitoring of landings and takeoffs.

In a detailed meeting, I engaged with Ian to discuss some of the aspects of the Red Sea International Airport.

Ian Williamson, Group Chief Projects Delivery Officer at Red Sea Global

SG: When does the Red Sea International Airport open for its first set of guests?

IW: By mid-2023, we will welcome our first passengers. We are modifying our seaplane terminal to initially handle domestic operations.

By the middle of next year, it will be able to handle domestic arrivals from Jeddah and Riyadh, and it will soon be able to handle international flights, beginning with private jets. Then we will be able to cater to full international commercial flights when we have the first phase of 16 hotels opened, expected in 2024 and beyond.

How does it work for the airlines? Do you have a partnership with a Saudi carrier, for example?

It will certainly be a local carrier, initially operating on a domestic basis. By mid-next year we’ll be clearer as for international carriers that’ll fly directly into RSI from overseas – so work in progress, and it’s too early in a way.

To begin with, it will predominantly be the Saudi and GCC visitors but as traction builds and the flows increase as we complete phase 1 in 2024. It makes the airport viable at that time for international scheduled flights.

Any confirmation on the domestic carriers?
Yes, we do. Clearly, Saudia is super interested to run the first flights to a totally new Saudi destination, part of the 2030 vision. They are interested, but the proving factor will be the number of people that fly the route. There would be other carriers too, but Saudia is expected to be the front-runner.

Photo: Red Sea Global and Almabani General Contractors

How about the local seaplane operations?
Yes, we have got Cessna Caravans (C208 A and C208 EX) for this, and the cabins are being refitted for 8 luxury seats. When we are fully built out, we will have 30-40 seaplanes in our fleet, but we will begin with 6-8 as a modest start until we establish additional destinations.

It will be interesting to see seaplanes run in Saudi Arabia. The operations will run under a 100% subsidiary of Red Sea Global.

There are also plans for an air taxi terminal – how does that run in parallel with seaplane operations?

Yes, until 2024, seaplanes and helicopters will be dominant, but thereafter, we expect these modes to come under pressure from eVTOL offerings and such, all of which we are monitoring closely. So, the facility we will build (the air taxi terminal) will allow us to make a quick transition to the upcoming advancements in air technology.

The entire airport will be powered by 100% renewable energy, and there will be no link to the grid either If I am not mistaken. Comment?

Yes, all the Red Sea destinations, including the airport, are powered by renewable energy. We are in a 25-year-long PP partnership with ACWA Power on this. So, they are
providing power, water, and solid and liquid waste management, and they’ve already built their primary substations at our airport.

Their solar farms are toward the south of our project site. The cabling is still going on and by March we will be able to run 100% on renewable power – exciting times ahead.

We had pressure to go on the grid and use it as a backup system, but we did not want to, as it weakens the argument that we are truly renewable.

Since it is a high-scale project with high investment, would airlines stare at heftier fees?

No, we are not going to deter carriers coming in. We are confident that the build-up curve from mid-next year to the 2030s is positive. I’m wholly confident that we’re going to find people and carriers wanting to come here.

It is hard to describe the uniqueness of the destination without coming and seeing it. All our social media snippets do not quite express just how different it is—just the natural beauty of the destination itself, and no one’s going to believe it is Saudi Arabia.


Featured image: Render: TRMC

Europe and Asia Correspondent
Commercial pilot | Flight Instructor | Aviation Journalist & writer.

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