Saudi Arabian Airlines still the Middle East’s second largest airline; robust domestic growth to battle newcomers

Saudi Arabian Airlines started not one but two new routes to the Turkish capital city of Ankara this week, commencing four times weekly services from Jeddah on 18 November, and then from Madinah on 19 November.

Saudi Arabian Airlines started not one but two new routes to the Turkish capital city of Ankara in November last year, commencing four times weekly services from Jeddah on 18 November, and then three times weekly from Madinah on 19 November. Turkey is the airline's seventh largest country market, one which has grown by 58% year-on-year.

Saudi Arabian Airlines – or Saudia for short –  started out in 1945 with a single DC-3 (registration HZ-AAX) given to King Abdul Aziz as a gift by the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today, the national carrier boasts a fleet of 166 aircraft (according to ch-aviation) with 105 wide-bodies and 61 narrow-bodies in its diverse fleet. While it is the MEB3 carriers that get all the media coverage with their far-reaching hub and spoke networks, Saudia is actually the second largest airline in the Middle East, offering 80% of the weekly seats available from local behemoth Emirates, while being bigger than both Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways on this metric. However, due to its considerable domestic network (65% of its seats and 32% of ASKs), something that none of the MEB3 carriers have, Saudia is the smallest of the four when it comes to weekly ASKs. 

Carrier Weekly Seats Weekly ASKs (millions)
Emirates 819,562 3,550
Saudi Arabian Airlines 660,519 1,066
Qatar Airways 563,765 1,853
Etihad Airways 267,909 1,142
Source: OAG Schedules Analyser for w/c 9 January 2016.

According to this week's OAG Schedules data, the SkyTeam carrier serves 81 airports (minus one since last January) across 36 countries (the same as a year ago). Services to Ujung Pandang (Indonesia), Munich (Germany), Malé (Maldives) and Ankara (Turkey) have been added in this period, while operations to Adana (Turkey), Constantine (Algeria), Luxor (Egypt), Mashhad (Iran) and Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen (Turkey) have been withdrawn. It is not surprising that Saudia is the second largest carrier in the Middle East when you refer to the graph below. The airline's number of ASKs per annum has doubled in size since 2010, averaging nearly 13% growth every year in that period. Looking ahead to the next 12 months, it is hard to predict the full scale of Saudia's operations at this stage of 2017, but early indications for the full-year are suggesting growth of around 13%, which should deliver over 90 billion annual ASKs.

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser w/c 9 January

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser. *anna.aero forecast.

Bangladesh forces Morocco out of the top 12

Over the last 12 months, there has been no change in the number of country markets which Saudia serves – staying constant at 36. However, flights are no longer operated by the carrier to neighbouring Iran, while services to the Maldives have been added, therefore maintaining the status quo. Inside Saudia's top 12 country markets, last year's 12th largest market, Morocco, has been ousted despite annual growth of 7%, and replaced with fast-growing Bangladesh, which has doubled in size since last January. Other rapidly expanding markets for the carrier include Turkey (+58%) and Indonesia (+55%).

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser w/c 9 January.

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser for w/c 9 January 2016.

The Saudi domestic market (highlighted in light green), which is by far the biggest served by the airline, has shown robust growth over the last 12 months, with a 13% increase when compared to the same week last year. The SkyTeam carrier is perhaps reacting to increased competition in the domestic market from newcomers like SaudiGulf Airlines and Nesma Airlines. Only one of the top 12 country markets has witnessed any sort of decline, that being Egypt, with a 30% capacity cull since last January. Frequencies to Cairo and Borg el Arab have all been trimmed over the past 12 months, while flights to Luxor have been withdrawn completely.

Big four all growing fast

Saudia's two main hubs, Jeddah (+12%) and Riyadh (+11%), along with Dammam (+11%) and Madinah (+44%) are all showing double-digit capacity increases versus those recorded last January. Unsurprisingly, given Bangladesh's growth above, Dhaka is the fastest-growing airport for the airline, with weekly seats having doubled over the period being analysed. Newcomers to the top 12 are Istanbul Atatürk, Dhaka and Khartoum, with Gassim, Hail (both in Saudi Arabia) and Jakarta falling out of the top ranked airports over the past year, despite all three growing.

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser w/c 9 January.

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser for w/c 9 January 2016.

Two airports within the top 12 have posted declines in weekly seats, these being Abha (-2%) and Cairo (-27%). Having looked at the top 12 routes operated by the airline, 11 are domestic, the only international sector being the Riyadh to Dubai sector. Again this illustrates the prominence of Saudia's domestic network.

The airline's longest routes are to North America where it serves Los Angeles, New York JFK, Toronto and Washington Dulles. All of these airports are served by the carrier's fleet of 777s.

No new routes planned – yet

Looking ahead to the remainder of W16/17 and S17, Saudia currently has no new routes planned to commence in either period, according to anna.aero's New Route Database. However, with domestic competition intensifying every day, it will be interesting to see whether the powerful national carrier will react in terms of further route development to protect its core flying programme from these new kids on the block.

The importance of Saudi Arabian Airlines' domestic, and indeed its Middle East Network is illustrated very clearly in this chart, given the density of the dots and lines in that region.

The importance of Saudi Arabian Airlines' domestic, and indeed its Middle East and Indian Sub-Continent network, is illustrated very clearly in this chart, given the density of the dots and lines in those regions. Iran is now a network white spot, as the carrier has withdrawn its services to its Middle Eastern neighbour in the last 12 months, but services to the Maldives have been added.


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