The Routes Less Taken: Middle Eastern Regional Airlines Map Out Strategies for Success


Oman Air's Aria IFE system will introduce passengers to Oman as a travel destination. Image via Oman Air

What do Gulf Air, Oman Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines all have in common? They aren’t – and don’t aspire to be – the ME3.

When travelers think of airlines in the Middle East, Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways – also known as the “ME3” – likely come to mind. They’ve been winning over passengers for years with luxury cabins, impeccable service and the promise that a transfer in the Gulf could get you anywhere you want in the world.

That promise has helped them cope with an economic downturn in 2017, stay afloat amid a now resolved years-long spat over government subsidies with the American big three and stave off rumblings of impending mergers. By fleet-size, passenger numbers and destinations served, the ME3 continue to dominate the region, but recent headlines from Gulf Air, Oman Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines suggest that these long-standing, though smaller, regional players may be ready to step out of the shadows – without stepping on anyone’s toes, of course.

Destination Creation

If the success of the ME3 rests on the airlines’ positions as gateways to far-flung destinations, then Oman Air is following a different playbook. New chief executive Abdulaziz Al Raisi says the flag carrier, unlike its counterparts in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, is now rolling back its reliance on transfer traffic.

“With sixth-freedom traffic, you are going into competition with a lot of giant airlines, big players. It’s very hard for us as a small airline to survive in that market,” Al Raisi told Arabian Aerospace. “So, we are trying to make Oman Air a destination airline … We all know Oman is a country that gives a lot of things to tourists, or to any visitor. Considering our neighboring countries, I think Oman has more to give than anybody else.”

A destination model – similar to that of Icelandair, Al Raisi says – seems wise, given that Oman, with its 52 aircraft, simply can’t keep up with its neighbors in terms of discounted transfer flights. But we’d be wrong to interpret the move as an admission of defeat.

In fact, Al Raisi’s revised direction comes on the heels of a new aircraft delivery. The carrier’s new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner began operating between Muscat and London on July 1, ushering in a three-class configuration, developed in collaboration with Teague and Rockwell Collins, for the first time in the airline’s history. The Dreamliner is equipped with eight first-class suites in a 1-2-1 configuration, each enclosed by a 55-inch-tall door and featuring a 180-degree lie-flat bed, which, set in an 82-inch pitch, Oman Air claims is among the longest available in commercial air travel.

The 787-9 also features Aria, a new in-flight entertainment (IFE) system that Kurt Henry, program manager at Thales InFlyt Experience, says is the result of a “co-creative” process between Oman Air and the company’s User Experience Center of Excellence team.

The final product uses graphic animation, background images and content-updatable features such as background and menu lists with translucent overlays. “We collaborated with the Oman Air team to create a [user experience] that represents the very fabric of Oman’s culture and warm hospitality across the different sections of the [user interface]. Our goal was to ensure that anyone flying on an Oman aircraft is introduced to its tranquil pace, spectacular landscapes and travel destinations,” Henry says.

With plans to expand its footprint to 39 million passengers by 2030, and a newly built $1.8-billion Muscat International Airport to support it, it’s clear the airline is settling in for the long game. After all, “Oman Air is very well known for its steady growth,” Al Raisi told Arabian Aerospace. “We don’t want to grow really fast. We are doing it very wisely.”

Young at Heart

Saudi Arabian Airlines, also known as Saudia, is the brand most positively spoken about among millennials in the desert country, followed by iPhone and Apple, according to data collected in the 52 weeks up to August 31, 2018, by YouGov’s tracking tool, BrandIndex. “The dominance of technology brands in the rankings suggests that youth today are constantly engaging with technology,” said Scott Booth, the company’s head for the Middle East and North Africa region. “These brands have been able to build a positive image among the digital natives.”

Saudi Arabia’s flag carrier is the brand most positively spoken about among millennials in the country.

Saudia’s position on the list is telling. In May, the airline, working with SITAONAIR, introduced 10 megabytes’ worth of free WhatsApp messaging on domestic flights. The following month, free WhatsApp access was expanded to include international flights. The airline very quickly saw “over 50 percent of passengers flying with Wi-Fi completing the two-step login process to access the specially created plan on the Saudia in-flight web portal,” says Jaan Albrecht, the airline’s CEO. And by September 15, when Saudia expanded the social messaging service to include iMessage and Facebook Messenger, half a million passengers had already experienced the free WhatsApp plan.

WhatsApp is also proving to be a useful resource for Saudia on the ground: Since it began handling customer service queries through the platform in January 2018, the airline has resolved over 220,000 cases. Depending on the query, a problem can be solved in between two and 10 minutes.

Throughout 2018, the carrier expanded its capabilities on WhatsApp to deal with medical service requests, special meal requests and students’ concessionary tickets. Gold members of Saudia’s Alfursan loyalty program can make or modify reservations and have their tickets reissued, if needed.

If Saudia’s social prowess wasn’t the cause of the chatter, its one-year-old low-cost carrier marketed toward the country’s digitally savvy under-30 demographic – which accounts for roughly 58.5 percent of Saudi citizens – might be. Based out of King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, flyadeal’s offering is single-class and entirely à la carte – unlike several other budget airlines in the area, such as flydubai and flynas, that have adopted more hybrid models with business-class products or tiered pricing, for example.

While sharing news that the carrier plans to welcome an additional 50 aircraft to its fleet, the airline’s CEO, Con Korfiatis, referred to flyadeal’s unlikely beginnings. “We launched the airline entirely through social media. As far as we know, it’s a global first and we haven’t had to move away from that [method],” he told Arabian Aerospace. The carrier turned to its followers again in February to crowdsource a design for its staff uniforms – an exercise that garnered more than 700 submissions from more than 140 young Saudis, the airline says.

Tracing Back

It may come as a surprise to some that Bahrain was among the first nations in the Middle East to establish a flag carrier, in 1950, and that by the 1970s, it had the most developed commercial aviation network in the region. At the time, Gulf Air was a trendsetter that “set the bar high for luxury and glamour in the skies,” says Matt Round, chief creative officer of tangerine, the design firm responsible for the airline’s new cabin interiors.

In fact, it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when Bahrain’s neighbors established their own national carriers, that Gulf Air lost some of its prestige. But with the appointment of KreÅ¡imir Kučko, the former boss of Croatia Airlines, as Gulf Air’s new chief in November of last year came an ambitious expansion plan that includes the revival of the carrier’s long-haul network, the rollout of 39 new aircraft by 2023 and the introduction of a renewed brand identity.

Gulf Air
Gulf Air’s redesigned interiors incorporate references to the modern sights and culture of Bahrain, as well as its historical traditions. Image via tangerine

The first aircraft to feature Gulf Air’s updated branding, including a fresh livery and new cabin interior with Thales AVANT IFE, was a new 787-9 on the airline’s double-daily Bahrain-London Heathrow route.

Although the aircraft has 282 seats in a two-class configuration – 26 Rockwell Collins Serenity suites in business class and 256 Recaro CL3710 seats in economy – representing a 32 percent increase in capacity compared to Gulf Air’s previous wide-body offering, the airline worked with its seat suppliers and tangerine to ensure a feeling of spaciousness.

“Our Serenity product offers all-aisle access, which is an amazing experience for passengers. The flip-down footrest increases comfort in bed mode by providing an uncompromised and complete sleeping surface while also improving ease of ingress and egress,” says Charles Barresi, vice-president and general manager of Executive Aircraft Seating, Rockwell Collins. “These features were key objectives for Gulf Air.”

But every effort to optimize comfort was paired with “heart,” which, Round says, encompasses Arabian hospitality, the modern sights and culture of Bahrain, as well as its historical traditions. Examples include references to the traditional sport of falconry – such as rich brown leather detailing evocative of the falconry glove, and a feather-shaped pattern on materials across the cabin – as well as an iridescent graphic on the bulkhead that “references the way sunlight glints off the surfaces of the cities that have emerged from the desert sands,” Round notes.

Hitherto loss-making, Gulf Air appears to have earned a profit this year, Kučko said at the Airline Economics Growth Frontiers conference in October. But budget remains tight, Kučko insisted, adding, “You need to have your niche, and cost control. We are not going to fight the big-three guys … We are looking for a global footprint – with small feet.”

The Routes Less Taken” was originally published in the 8.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.