I decided to go on a business trip to Riyadh from Dammam, last Sunday 1st of August departing and returning the same day. Everything was decided on short notice two days prior to the 1st of August and I had originally intended to book the flight on Saturday, July 31st but there were absolutely no seats on any of the seven outbound and inbound flights.
For those of you who are unaware, the weekend in Saudi Arabia is Thursday/Friday while Saturday-Wednesday are business days. This is why I was surprised there were no seats on the first business day in any direction although the month of August and higher business travel may have contributed to the lack of seats.
SV1139 DMM-RUH AUG 1 07:00-08:00 MD90
The company had made available my boarding card the previous day so thankfully I timed my arrival in the airport in time for boarding, which was indicated on the boarding card as 06:10. I found this surprising as long haul flights are not that well-prepared for boarding. In fact, the longest time reserved for boarding I had experienced is 45 minutes on a long haul flight operated by a Boeing 747. My guess is that Saudi Arabian times its boarding to accomodate the local population being late for literally anything and this would explain Saudi Arabian's good ontime record. Boarding was quick and in no time all the passengers where seated waiting for about 20 minutes for pushback. The muslim "Travel Dua'a", or travel prayer, was recited on the inflight announcement system as the aircraft taxiied to the runway. This is standard on every domestic and international Saudi Arabian flight.
Photo © Yakfreak - VAP
I did not take photos as I did not have a handy digital camera and I also suspected that photography was not permitted. Perhaps this explains the lack of photos taken in Saudi Arabia on airliners.net? The above is a photo of an SV MD-90 in Dubai International Airport.
During the 40 minute hop, the passengers were offered refreshments although a light morning snack would have been nice. I was particularly pleased with how quite the MD90 cabin is during takeoff and inflight.
Although Arab travelers are known to be needy, I can only agree with the MD90s local reputation of having an uncomfortable cabin. I needed to be careful getting into and leaving my window seat as the overhead bins were very low. It does seem to be that it is only a matter of time before these aircraft, which have been problematic to Saudi Arabian due to their lack of performance in hot and high airports, are phased out and replaced with more suitable aircraft (culturally and operationally).
As is the case with every Saudi Arabian flight I previously took, the crew did not look like a team. There is always a strange divide between Saudi cabin crew (all male) and female expatriate cabin crew, mostly philipinas. At times they look demoralized and unmotivated. This is only expected considering the difficult clientele and the local religious interpretation of limiting genders mixing. What a far cry for female cabin crew working at Emirates and living in Dubai!
ONTIME PERFORMANCE / ARRIVAL
The flight took off on time and arrived 10 minutes earlier than expected. King Khaled International Airport opened in 1983 and is the largest in the world in terms of surface area. Publications were published about the marvels of its architecture and interior luxury. Have a look at these photos:
In five minutes I was greeted at the arrivals hall and walked straight to the company car. All in all, it took less than 10 minutes to walk off the aircraft and into the car, a great plus for an airport as large as Riyadh.
SV1162 RUH-DMM AUG 1 23:30-00:30* MD90
After a long day of meetings and a dinner at a friend's house, I took a taxi and headed back to Riyad's spacious King Khaled International Airport, arriving deliberately 40 minutes prior to departure as I suspected the airport not to be busy. As was the case with my last trip to Riyadh, I noticed the air conditioning inside the terminal was not working or was not cooling sufficiently, how unfortunate when the outside temperature is 38'C !
Check-in was not a pleasant experience as when it was finally my time to get my boarding pass, people around me decided to stand at the counter at my right and left sides, pleading for seats on the day's last flights to Jeddah and Dammam. I was amused to see the agent put me on hold for 10 minutes while attending to people initially behind me, but I was not surprised and felt my comfirmed booking will land me the boarding card. Finally, the agent said out loud "Dammam flight is closed and this passenger, pointing to me, is the last person to be issued a boarding card, with an upgrade to first as he deserves it".. Typical check-in scenerio! Being patient paid off and I ran to the boarding gate on time and sat in seat 2A in the Boeing MD-90.
Having been upgraded to first class, I presumed I would be served a light meal on the 40 minute hop but all I received is a complimentary tooth-picked date (with no napkin!!) and a glass of orange juice. The flight attendant was Arab (probably of Syrian or Lebanese origin) and expectedly, made no effort to smile or look motivated during the flight. Perhaps she was looking forward to sleeping?
ONTIME PERFORMANCE / ARRIVAL
Arrival was also on time at 00:30 and I was in my car 4 minutes after disembarking.
My overall rating of Saudi Arabian is neutral, not bad but it is also not good. I hope that the government will go ahead with its pledged approval for a privately-owned airline to take off soon (NetJets?). This is a country where where a single airline provides air transportation services for its 16-million population. I don't know if there is any other state-owned flag carrier in the world enjoying such a monopoly. I believe competition will bring more frequencies, improve onboard service as well as increase point-to-point routes within the Kingdom, in addition to increasing passenger traffic!