UPDATE – The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) has officially announced it will launch a second national airline, Riyadh Air. The carrier will be chaired by former Etihad Airways CEO Tony Douglas and has ambitious growth plans with a fleet that includes Boeing 787-9s. Saudi Arabia confirms launch of Riyadh Air with Tony Douglas as CEO.
PIF issued a press release on March 12, saying that Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, and chairman of the state-owned fund has announced the establishment of Riyadh Air. Like Saudia and its subsidiaries, the new airline will also be wholly owned by the state.
To be based in the country’s capital Riyadh, “the new national carrier will leverage Saudi Arabia’s strategic geographic location between the three continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe, enabling Riyadh to become a gateway to the world and a global destination for transportation, trade, and tourism.” The airline plans to grow a global network that will include 100 destinations. Under its Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has bold ambitions to attract boost tourism and attract 300 million visitors, which is tenfold the number Saudia carried in 2019. Riyadh Air is supposed to add $20 billion in non-oil GDP to the Saudia economy and create more than 200.000 direct and indirect jobs.
Rumors have been around for over two years that the government was planning to establish a second airline next to Saudia, although its manager for corporate affairs, Abdullah M. Alshahrani, downplayed the reports when AirInsight talked to him at the 2021 Dubai Airshow, saying: “There is no official announcement about the plan for a second national carrier.” But in 2022, the plans were becoming clearer and the airline was supposed to be named RIA.
Tony Douglas to join the start-up after all
Soon after he announced that he would depart Etihad in October, Tony Douglas was linked to RIA as its CEO, but only recently there were reports that he had quit the start-up again. This has likely been a smokescreen to distract attention, as Douglas has now indeed been confirmed as CEO of Riyadh Air. He will lead a management team of Saudi nationals and others with backgrounds in international carriers. One of them is Peter Bellew, who joins as Chief Operating Officer with many years of experience in similar roles at Malaysia Airlines, Ryanair, and easyJet.
Arabian Business said in October that Douglas wanted to bring executives from Etihad with him to RIA. The airline will be chaired by His Excellency, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who is also the governor of PIF.
On its brand-new website, Douglas says: “Riyadh Air will be a digitally native airline, driven by a pioneering spirit with an obsessive focus on attention to detail and innovation at its heart. We aim to permanently transcend our guests’ perceptions and experiences of flying in the modern world.”
Expect Riyadh Air to announce its short and long-term fleet plans anytime soon, but the Boeing 787-9 is firmly on its shopping list. According to The Wall Street Journal, the new airline is close to signing an agreement with Boeing for aircraft, valued at $ 35 billion, but Saudi Arabia has been in talks with Airbus too about an A350 order.
The airline has already started recruiting Captains and First Officers with experience on Airbus and Boeing aircraft but doesn’t say when it expects to be ready to launch its first services. It is also recruiting for various management and technical roles, including engineers, cabin designers, cargo specialists, digital experts as well as for cabin crew, all with a deadline of April 11.
RIA intended to launch short-haul services first with a limited fleet of narrowbodies before adding widebody capacity. In its recruitment for pilots, Riyadh Air confirms they will be offered a mix of domestic and international flights.
It remains to be seen how Riyadh Air will compete with Saudia on home grounds, but most of all if it will be able to capture market share from its main Gulf rivals Qatar Airways, Emirates, Etihad, and Gulf Air.
Active as a journalist since 1987, with a background in newspapers, magazines, and a regional news station, Richard has been covering commercial aviation on a freelance basis since late 2016.
Richard is contributing to AirInsight since December 2018. He also writes for Airliner World, Aviation News, Piloot & Vliegtuig, and Luchtvaartnieuws Magazine. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.