Last Thursday (May 18) Bmi launched a three times a week service to the western port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The new service, which is operated by a two-class B767, (leased from a Dutch charter carrier) complements Bmi's existing service to Riyadh, which was launched last autumn.
At the same time Bmi has said it's considering adding a third Saudi destination, Damman, to its network. Nigel Turner, chief executive of Bmi says: "We are looking at possible ways of serving Damman and I don't think Saudi Arabia would object, they are very keen. I see a decision on Damman in the next six months."
Bmi is the only British carrier to serve the Kingdom since British Airways withdrew its service 14 months ago. Direct flight competition comes from local airline Saudia, the only other carrier linking the UK with Saudi Arabia.
Jeddah, the commercial capital is also the gateway to Makkah and Medina for over a million pilgrims who fly into King Abdulaziz International airport each year. The decision to take on the route was as Turner points out 'a no brainer'.
The Boeing 767 used to fly to Jeddah also covers Bmi's other route to Riyadh. The route to the capital has been well received and the airline has increased the business class seating from 24 to 42 since the launch last year.
This particular aircraft operates in a two class layout (premium economy has been dropped on the Saudi routes owing to the lack of demand) and apart from the slightly tired carpets another difference (compared to Bmi's Airbus A330s which operate flights to the US and India) is that business class passengers do not have in-seat in-flight entertainment. Instead, passengers are given portable DVD players with a choice of films.
But Bmi says it plans to replace the B767 in the near future. Says Turner: "The A330s will be coming into operation on the route we hope no later than March 2007."
Bmi's flights depart Heathrow Terminal One every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 0935 arriving in Jeddah at 1740. The return flight leaves Jeddah on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 0035 and reaches Heathrow at 0525.
There are good connections at Heathrow for services to the US, and Bmi has linked with British Airways to provide special through fares for transatlantic travellers starting their trips in Saudi Arabia (see Online news, April 20)
Future development for the new routes might be hampered by visa restrictions, as business travellers need a letter of invitation before they can obtain a visa. Tourism is almost exclusively for religious purposes with a special visa required. But Turner is positive that the country will be opened up to limited mainstream tourism soon: "Saudi Arabia has many natural treasures and the visa issue is vitally important to make it easier to visit. The UK government and Saudia Arabia are working closely to ease the process."
Other developments are the plans for a new airport next to the current one. While the building is in process, King Abdulaziz International airport's terminals will be expanded to ease congestion. Currently passenger traffic is 14.5 million per year and although it has a capacity for 18.5 million, passenger numbers are increasing at 7.5 per cent each year.
The new airport terminals are expected to be completed in five years with a capacity of 25 million passengers a year.
In other news, Bmi says it plans to launch a daily Heathrow-Moscow service next November. The new route would be operated by a narrow-bodied A320. It's not clear whether Bmi will use Moscow's main Sheremetyevo airport (used by fellow Star Alliance members Austrian, Lufthansa and SAS) or the more user-friendly Domodedovo airport (used by BA and Star member Swiss)
For more information go to flybmi.com
Report by Felicity Cousins and Alex McWhirter