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CEO Talks: The Saudi Air Connectivity Program

On the sidelines of the Future Aviation Forum, I met with Majid Khan, CEO of Saudi Air Connectivity Program to discover new airlines flying to Saudi Arabia and its exciting air connectivity opportunities. Here is the Q and A transcript:

What is Air Connectivity Program?

Air Connectivity Program (ACP) was established back in 2021 based on the national tourism strategy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We have a target to reach 150 million inbound visitors by 2030. According to Saudi Vision 2030; out of 150 million, the target is to attract 70 million international passengers, and that's where air connectivity comes in.

We have some very high targets, but Saudi Arabia is not well connected in terms of air connectivity.

Majid Khan, CEO of Air Connectivity Program

If we look at the top ten international routes in the world, one is between Jeddah and Cairo with 6 million seats. The other one is between Riyadh and Dubai with 4 million seats. This means most travelers need one-stop traffic before arriving in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So ACP aims to develop connectivity, bringing more airlines and expanding the existing network of 29 airports in Saudi Arabia.

How does Air Connectivity Program work? Which Airlines are launching flights to Saudi Arabia soon?

We work with all airlines globally but more on a strategic level with the Saudi carriers about their key focus market, whether it's Europe, CIS, or Asia. We also co-operate with foreign carriers as our target is inbound tourism specifically. We work closely with airlines in China, Korea, Japan, South Asia, Europe and the GCC.

In 2024, we got the top 3 Chinese carriers to start flying to Saudi Arabia. China Southern Airlines has started from Beijing Daxing. China Eastern Airlines will start Shanghai to Riyadh and Air China from Beijing Capital to Riyadh.

We expect more in the coming weeks and months. ITA Airways; the Italian carrier, will start from Rome to Jeddah and Riyadh on June 2nd. British Airways will resume service between London Heathrow and Jeddah.

This year alone, we got seven airlines confirmed in the coming weeks. Since the inception of ACP, we have established 28 new routes.

Majid Khan, CEO of Air Connectivity Program

What are your strategies? Do you also support transit strategy?

At ACP, we have three strategies:

  • Our national tourism strategy.
  • The national aviation strategy. To increase passenger volumes from 120 million in 2023 to 330 million and add 250 destinations.
  • The air connectivity strategy including developing a pipeline from our key source markets, both point-to-point and transfer towards 2030.

When we split our airports, we have the four big ones in Saudi Arabia; Damman, Riyadh, Jeddah, and Medina. What we are trying to do is, to develop connectivity through Riyadh, through Jeddah, through Damman, and through Medina.

For example, Medina is the one which has the shorter distance from Europe. So you can reach Medina from Europe with narrowbody nonstop. You don't need an LR to fly to Medina and back. Our aim is to improve the connectivity to and from Europe, from Europe to Medina, and then beyond Medina to domestic. So we also support transit capability.

Are you subsidizing airlines to launch flights to Saudi Arabia?

No, we are not. That's the way it's perceived, unfortunately.

For ACP. We are one point of contact for the airlines for the 29 airports of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We have a strong ecosystem which we work with, we are one point of contact for all carriers who want to connect to Saudi Arabia. Our mandate is to bring seats to enhance the air connectivity for Saudi Arabia.

We work with the tourism board, Visit Saudi, which is a strong partner of us because our mandate is to bring the seats. We collaborate with our airport partners to fill these aircraft, promote the routes, and make sure that airlines keep the costs down by enhancing the operation through our airports.

So no, we are not subsidizing, we aim to highlight Saudi Arabia's tourism potential because Saudi Arabia is an untested market. It's a country with 37 million people but for the majority of travelers, they need one to two stops before they arrive here.

Majid Khan, CEO of Air Connectivity Program

We convince the airlines to see the potential in Saudi Arabia versus the competitors. We know the demand is high and airlines are struggling with the supply due to the manufacturers cannot deliver the aircraft in time. We need to convince the airlines that Saudi Arabia is a better market to do your business versus the competition.

A lot of airlines that came to Saudi were very happy because they got the first-move advantage.

Imagine if we compare Saudi Arabia with Europe. Europe is a congested market right? Saudi Arabia is completely untouched.

Majid Khan, CEO of Air Connectivity Program

Obviously, the airports in Saudi Arabia have their standard packages where they give discounts on landing fees and passenger fees. We have Visa Saudi to support tourism campaigns. We work closely with the airlines to promote the route but we don't subsidize the route. The important thing for us is that we are more competitive vs the markets they're considering to enter actually.

Poland is a good example. I mean a strong market with 40 million people, you can reach Poland from Saudi Arabia with a narrow-body aircraft, but we are underserved. So later this year we will get a LOT Polish Airlines to start flying to Saudi Arabia, but we would like to have more Polish destinations connected to more Saudi destinations because we know the Polish travelers are very flexible. If they have been a couple of times to Malaga, I mean they want to explore something new...