Review – Saudia IST-KUL via Jeddah.

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  • rferguson

    Istanbul – Jeddah. A330. six passengers. 3hr15min.

    Boarding commenced 50 minutes before departure with priority boarding strictly enforced.

    First impressions were great. The cabin looked near new and the finishes and colour scheme in the Business Class cabin were understated and elegant with cream leather seats. The cabin was immaculate and I was immediately welcomed onboard by one of the female crew and felt rather awkward when she offered to lift my heavy wheelie bag into the overhead locker.

    Each seat already had a plush pillow and blanket in place as well as Saudia branded noise cancelling headsets.

    I boarded quite early on and assumed that there is no pre depature service of any kind on the short sectors as nothing really happened. Then after sitting for a good half an hour (and only ten minutes before departure) the crew sprang into action.
    First welcome drinks were served – a choice of lemon and lime juice (delicious), fresh orange juice or a date and walnut smoothie. Menus followed. Then a selection of newspapers and magazines (in arabic only). Thick hot towels were distributed. Meal orders were also taken.

    The other passengers seemed all Saudis and I would at a guess say most worked for Saudia. The First Officer emerged from the flight deck to greet one of the male passengers with multipe (and I mean multiple) kisses and when the flight attendant was serving the passenger behind me I could hear her refer to him as ‘Captain’.

    The door was closed a few minutes ahead of schedule and the safety video was played as well as a rather long prayer.

    The seat –
    Saudia has 30 seats over five rows in Business. They are fully flat seats on this A330-300 manufactured by B/E Aerospace (‘Diamond’ model). They are in a 2x2x2 configuration although slightly staggered so you aren’t at eye level with your neighbour. They aren’t the best lay flat seat out there as they do not offer direct aisle access for all. But for a regional flight they are absolutely superb. They are identical to the seats you’ll find on Qatar Airways reburbished A330’s or that AA has on its A321T’s. I doubt you’ll see a Saudia flight full in any class judging by the four sectors I flew so you can almost be guaranteed an empty seat next to you 🙂

    The seat felt a little narrow although you can lower the armrest to be flush with the seat when it’s in bed mode to give you more width at shoulder level. Your feet slide into a cubby hole which didn’t feel too tight. Each seat had universal power adaptors and USB ports.

    Inflight service:
    After take off the crew came around offering traditional arabic coffee then the dinner service commenced. A tablecloth was laid and then the tray presented which had the starter and side salad on it. An assortment of bread from the basket was also offered as was a glass of water. The starter plate was cleared and the main was presented. The food was fine. The starter was better than the main. After i’d finished my main I was offered a fruit plate, dessert, tea or coffee all of which I declined. For a three hour flight I found the catering pretty impressive. But here’s my main problem with Saudia’s meal service. The drinks. Of course I knew before booking that Saudia is a dry airline and that is really no big deal for me. But I would have expected that if you are an airline that doesn’t serve alcohol you’d have some REALLY good non alcoholic drinks. Especially in the premium cabins. Maybe mocktails, cocunut water etc. But during the entire flight as well as during the following Jeddah – Kuala Lumpur flight I was never asked what i’d like to drink once. Well, except for tea and coffee. Water is automatically served with each meal. A bottle of water is given out after the meal. There isn’t even a drinks list featured anywhere. And I think that is really really poor.

    For those interested the menu was:
    Appetizer – Traditional arabic mezze OR smoked salmon and prawns.
    Side salad
    Mains: Grilled lamb rack with potatoes and seasonal veg. Baked Hammour seafood sauce, potato and veg. Chicken Zorbian with basmati rice.
    Dessert: Fresh seasonal platter. Chocolate and amarena cherry cake. Arabic pastry.

    I’ll write a little more about the crew than I usually would because the set up really is quite unique. On the Istanbul – Jeddah sector the crew were an even mix of male (all Saudi) and females (all expats, mainly from SE Asia, Egypt and Morocco). I’ll say from the outset that I never experienced a rude one. They all smile. They all seem genuine. And some of the expat female crew I spoke with had been at Saudia for nearly twenty years. Saying that, the male crew do nothing. I mean absolutely NADA. All of the cabin service is undertaken by the female crew. The males walk around a bit, play with their mobile phones on boarding, liase with the ground staff and cockpit crew. But as soon as the aircraft took off they plonked themselves in the empty Business Class seats, helped themseves to a Business Class tray and then either slept or watched a movie.

    I would have thought the female crew would resent this kind of behaviour but it doesn’t seem to bother them at all. To be honest, I wonder if they are happy to just have the male crew out of the way as the ladies seem to have the service down to a tee and actually seemed more happy to be there than i’ve experienced with expat crew for the more popular middle eastern airlines.

    I checked out the IFE and whilst the system is modern and the range was better than expected the censoring is just increible – and a little weird too. I watched an episode of Friends and while it seemed Lisa Kudrows upper bosom was acceptable, Jeniffer Anistons was continually blured out. I then put on the Hollywood comedy ‘The Heat’ a film i’ve seen before and enjoyed very much. I couldn’t watch it for more than ten minutes. The word changes were just ridiculous. Even the word ‘balls’ (referring to testicles) was replaced with ‘brains’. It just become tedious.

    I didn’t have great expectations of Saudias IFE (which was realised) and was counting on Saudias WiFi powered by OnAir to keep me entertained. Wifi is free for First and Business Class passengers by using a code that they email to you a couple hours before flight departure. I had no problems connecting to the service but it was staying connected that was the issue. I had the same problem on all sectors. I would enter the code into my iPhone, it would be recognised and I was able to use the wifi. But then as soon as I didn’t use the service for a few minutes and my phone went onto standby I couldn’t reconnect with the same code. Its as if the service does not remember your device. And if you enter the same code you just get an ‘invalid code’ message. Paid plans are available. 20mins/20mb is US4.99, 60min/50mb 9.99, 3hrs/100mb 14.99 or whole flight/300mb 24.99.

    The flight landed in Jeddah a few minutes before schedule and we taxiied to a stand where we were bussed to the terminal (there are no gate stands at Jeddah airport).

    Jeddah airport – transit.

    The Saudia Terminal at Jeddah airport is probably the very worst i’ve ever had to spend time in. And i’ve flown to a LOT of airports. Even Jeddah Airport several times (The North Terminal). And that is a dump too. But it has nothing on the South (Saudia) terminal. I have never been to Mogadishu or Kabul Airport but i’d imagine it would be something like the Saudia terminal in Jeddah. When the bus arrived at the terminal all I could think was ‘this place resembles a shed’. It is dilapidated, bursting at the seams, filthy, a total lack of facilities….I just cannot think of enough derogatory things to say about it. After following the signs for transit, I went up some stairs which emerged at the main departures security post passport control. It was a zoo. I ran like a demented horse to the Saudia Lounge trying to find some refuge from the craziness.

    When I got to the lounge I think the panic really set in (I have 9.5hrs here on my return). It’s one medium sized room, packed, limited food (not a single hot dish at least while I was in there) and constant boarding calls are made for every flight. Thankfully on this outbound journey I didn’t have long until my next flight. I thought i’d quickly use the facilities in the lounge before heading to the gate however there was a line up for the TWO toilet stalls they have in there for the entire lounge. So I thought i’d take my chances in the terminal. BIG mistake. The toilets are the most disgusting i’ve ever seen in an airport. You could almost swim in the water sploshing around on the floor. There was no paper anywhere to be seen. I decided to hold my bladder until I reached the plane for my next flight. There are literally two or three coffee shops. Not one proper restaurant. And just people EVERYWHERE.

    Jeddah’s new terminal is due to open sometime this year. The Saudia staff take this with a pinch of salt however. One member of staff told me ‘they’ve been saying ‘this year’ for the last seven years’. It can not happen too soon. Saudia will never, ever be able to compete on a world stage or attract passengers using the facilities they have in JED. I think many will be willing to forgo booze on board (i’m more concerned with food and hard product) if the fare is right but I can honestly say if I ever found a fare that was an absolute bargain but involved transiting in that hell hole they call a terminal building again, I wouldn’t do it. Especially as you cannot even take the decision to book a local hotel room for a long transit (Saudi does not issue tourist or transit visas but will start soon).

    Jeddah – Kuala Lumpur. 787-9. 8hr1min. 11 pax.

    Boarding is done via bus and is a free for all. There isn’t even an announcement for boarding let alone any form of order or zoning. They simply open the gates and the masses flow through. I never get my knickers in a knot about such things though. The plane isn’t going to go anywhere until everyone is on so i’m not obsessed with being onboard in the first wave anyway. The bus was full and when we arrived at the aircraft side cleaners were still running up and down the stairs. The 787 was obviously late inbound and we were kept on the bus for around fifteen minutes before we were allowed to board. At the top of the stairs I was welcomed and turned left to take seat 3A.

    The seat:
    This business class cabin seemed so familiar as it is almost identical to Qatars 787 business class cabin. The seats are a little more private and the casing is higher than on Qatar. There was the same style pillow and blanket as on the IST-JED flight as well as noise cancelling headphones at my seat. The seats are configured 1-2-1 and all have direct aisle access, oodles of storage and universal power/USB points.

    On this flight the crew were all female with the exception of the Purser (who like on the previous sector plonked himself in 5A after take off where he remained until just before landing). Once again the crew came around with thick hot towels, pre departure beverages (same selection as IST-JED), newspapers/magazines and menus. The only addition to this sector was an amenity kit by Porsche design which is one of the nicest i’ve received in Business Class.

    The other customers in business were mainly Saudi couples as well as an extended Malay family.

    There was to be a ‘breakfast service’ after take off and then a ‘main meal’ before landing. The meal order for both meals was taken before take off.

    We pushed back thirty minutes late.

    Inflight service:
    After take off tablecloths were laid and the trays delivered from a meal cart with the fruit and cheese already on. The pastry basket was also offered and I took a croissant which looked good but was disappointed that it wasn’t heated. Also, as par for the course, a glass of water included. The main followed swiftly (I had the beef which was tasty) and I passed on dessert.

    I again had the same issue with the wifi as on the previous sector and the IFE was pretty much identical to the previous sector so thought i’d get some shut eye instead. I slept well for a few hours and woke up just under two hours before landing. I went to the galley and asked for a coffee which was promptly served. It definitely tasted like it was from an espresso machine.

    The second meal started about an hour and thirty minutes before landing and by now I knew the drill – tablecloths laid, tray presented, glass of water, clear in starter plate, deliver main. I selected the salmon which was dry and tasteless. I had some fresh fruit and another coffee for dessert.
    1st meal – breakfast
    Appetizer: Fresh seasonal fruit and Continental cheese selection with dried fruit and nuts.
    Mains: Beef Tapa – marinated beef with garlic fried rice. Egg frittato with ratatoullie and beef brochette. American pancakes with Mixed berry compote.
    Assortment of breakfast breads and pastries.
    2nd meal – dinner.
    Appetizer: traditional arabic mezze. Grilled prawns and smoked salmon.
    Seasonal salad.
    Harira or chicken mushroom soup.
    Mains: baked salmon with potatoes and veg. Slow braised rolled chicken with ginger sauce and steamed rice. Lamb Biryani.
    Desserts – fresh seasonal platter. Pistachio and sour cherry gateaux. Ice cream.

    I am a little conflicted about how I feel about Saudia. I found their onboard hard product really good. Their crew were very friendly and efficient (well the ladies anyway). I have absolutely no idea what happens if a flight happens to be full and all the crew are needed to serve. I enjoyed the general relaxed vibe onboard (as well as the near empty flights). They have a good APP and website. Food and onboard amenities were definitely above average. And they offer very competitive fares. Does all this outweigh the cons? For me, the biggest negative aspect is Jeddah Airport. Until they sort that mess out i’d probably avoid flying with them. They also don’t have a very extensive schedule – my near ten hour stopover on my return is not down to my doing. When I booked I had a four hour transit but then one of my flights was cancelled and I was booked onto a later connection. I guess this is the kind of thing that happens when you are flying near empty planes around the world. Some of the issues unfortunate passengers could face are out of Saudia’s hands. On my outbound journey my connection was 95 miniutes – 5 minutes longer than the minimum allowed. If my flight had been late into JED and my connection missed you are basically a prisoner in a hell hole for god knows how long. Saudia has no ability to get you a visa to leave the terminal even if they wanted to provide you with a hotel. And I wish they’d sort the drinks out. A dry airline doesn’t mean you don’t have to make an effort. They spend hundred of millions buying new aircraft, refurbishing cabins on older aircraft, installing wifi – how about spending some on some decent non alcoholic drinks as well! I’m sure Saudis enjoy drinking stuff other than water, tea and coffee too.


    Thank you rferguson. Very interesting report. Saudi society is undergoing a long awaited overhaul under the new Crown Prince, so let’s hope the toilets in the SV terminal follow suit.


    As a regular visitor to Saudi for business, you’re description of Jeddah airport is spot on. The onboard product is very hit and miss depending on where you fly. Typically flights are late, crews are as accurately described and always Chicken biriyani on the menu.
    As a AF gold member, the alliance recognition is short coming.


    An excellent, informative & well written report. As far as trying SV? Absolutely not, despite some v v keen pricing. Overall well-being is key on a journey like this, & that, for me, includes the transit airport experience, the crew, food & a decent cocktail/glass of wine. YMMV, of course..

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