British Airways will resume flying to Saudi Arabia
next March after a four-year absence.
The carrier will fly five times a week from
London Heathrow to both Jeddah and Riyadh. Flights to Riyadh will be operated by a four-class B777 and Jeddah flights will be three-class using a smaller B767.
Robert Boyle, BA’s commercial director says,
“Resuming these flights make commercial sense. The oil market is increasingly
important globally and inward investment into Saudi Arabia has risen considerably
in the last couple of years.”
But the decision will not go down well with Bmi,
which stepped in to fill the gap left by BA when it pulled out of Saudi in 2005
citing “commercial reasons.”
At the time, BA’s decision seemed a strange one
because of high oil prices (in 2005) which were leading to a boom in Riyadh. On the other
hand, the country had a dire security situation at that time and it’s rumoured
that BA’s flight crew were reluctant to night stop in Saudi, a fact which BA
will neither confirm or deny.
But one thing was clear. When I visited Riyadh myself in
September 2005 it was made clear to me that BA’s decision [to pull out of
Saudi] had damaged its reputation in a part of the world where loyalty is so
Bmi was welcomed by the authorities and business
people with open arms because Riyadh had, and
still has, limited air connections to Europe.
Since then Bmi has been the sole British
airline serving Saudi and the previous dire security situation no longer
exists. Bmi persevered during a
difficult time and developed both routes by adding extra flights and better
in-flight products including fully-flat bed seats in business class.
In a statement issued today, Nigel Turner, Bmi’s CEO, said, “Our services
have gained considerable support both in the UK and in the Kingdom [Saudi]. We
have every confidence that travellers who were abandoned by BA when they
withdrew flights for the third time will remember that it was Bmi who came to
their rescue and restored their vital direct links and will continue to support
the services of Bmi in the future.”
But four years is a long time in the aviation
world and, when it last served their country, BA’s product was popular with
many Anglophile Saudis. London is their most
preferred destination outside the Middle East.
“We especially liked BA’s flat bed seats in
first and business class,” a member of
the Saudi Royal family told me at that time, “We simply want to sleep, not to
eat, on the overnight flight.”
BA will score over Bmi because it offers a global
network of connections at Heathrow. North America is a popular destination for Saudis and no
single carrier offers as many transatlantic links from Heathrow as does BA.
Another BA selling point will be its provision
of first class, albeit only on the Riyadh
route. (Bmi does not offer first class
on its three-class Airbus A330s) To have
a first class cabin is more or less essential in a part of the world where
status is so important.
BA’s service has been made possible because the
air services agreement between the UK and Saudi was recently
liberalised to allow many more flights.
The new flights will commence on March 29 next year, with services to Riyadh departing Heathrow T5 at 2050 and arriving in Riyadh the next morning at 0530. Return services depart at 0745 or 0715
(depending on the day of the week) to reach Heathrow before midday.
Services to Jeddah are set to depart Heathrow
between 1915 and 2050 (depending on the day of the week) to arrive early the
next morning. Inbound services depart at around 0915 to land back in Heathrow
These schedules compliment those of Bmi. By contrast Bmi operates to Saudi during the
daytime but returns to London
Let’s hope there’s enough business for both
carriers to prosper.
Report by Alex McWhirter