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Riyadh Air Won’t Offer First Class

Riyadh Air, Saudi Arabia’s new national airline, is expected to launch operations in 2024. Up until now, we haven’t known what to expect from the carrier’s onboard product, though here’s a noteworthy update.

The Telegraph has a story about the different approaches that airlines are taking to offering a first-class products. Along those lines, Riyadh Air CEO Tony Douglas has shared some details about what Riyadh Air has in store for passengers.

Douglas states that on long-haul jets, Riyadh Air intends to have three cabins, including business class, premium economy, and economy. That’s right, Riyadh Air won’t offer first class.

As a reminder, the airline has ordered up to 72 Boeing 787-9 (including 39 firm orders and 33 options). The airline is expected to soon place a narrow body order as well, with the airline reportedly leaning toward the Boeing 737 MAX.

Riyadh Air is arguably the most ambitious airline project we’ve ever seen. The airline hopes to become the size of Emirates but in a quarter the amount of time. Okay, admittedly the project is ambitious in terms of the projected growth, though it’s not that hard to grow when you have seemingly unlimited funds from the Saudi government.

On the one hand, it was assumed that Riyadh Air would offer first class, given that it obviously aims to be an opulent Gulf carrier, and a great first class certainly makes headlines. On the other hand, not offering first class also makes sense:

  • The Boeing 787-9 isn’t exactly a huge plane, so Riyadh Air doesn’t have as much real estate to play with as Emirates has on the A380, for example
  • Riyadh Air CEO Tony Douglas is a disciplined guy who is focused on cost, and when he ran Etihad, he also wasn’t a fan of first-class and chose to instead focus on creating a great business-class product
  • From a business perspective, I think it makes a lot of sense to offer premium economy rather than first class, especially since that’s something that Gulf carriers currently largely lack
Emirates is the only Gulf carrier that continues to embrace first class

It’s interesting to see how Gulf carriers are seemingly taking different directions when it comes to cabins:

  • Qatar Airways believes that there’s no future for first class, and also doesn’t plan to introduce a premium economy product, so instead focuses on offering two cabins of service, with an exceptional business class
  • Emirates Airlines is very committed to first class and is also in the process of installing a new premium economy cabin, while seemingly maintaining its subpar business class
  • Etihad Airways has introduced a great new business class product, doesn’t see much of a future for first class, and also hasn’t embraced premium economy.

In terms of maximizing efficiency, I’d say Riyadh Air is probably taking the most logical approach here. The airline can offer a great business class hard product, premium economy, and economy. When Riyadh Air orders narrow-body aircraft, I’m also curious to see how those will be configured.

You’d assume that a 737 MAX would just have business class and economy, though it sure would be nice to see the airline also introduce a premium economy product. After all, if you want to make the value proposition of premium economy attractive, it’s nice to have that product throughout the fleet, so that passengers don’t end up spending one of two segments in economy.

Saudia has first class on some Boeing 777s

One other thing to note is that Saudi Arabia’s current national airline, Saudia, offers first class on many of its Boeing 777s. Riyadh Air is supposed to be a more premium airline than Saudia, though it sounds like you’ll have to fly with Saudia if you want first class.


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