Date: Aug 4, 2007
Airline: Sama Airlines
Flight Number: ZS.551/552
Aircraft: Boeing 737-300
Registration: HZ-CJB / HZ-DMO
Trip Mission: meet the Spanish Consul-General in Riyadh for my student visa interview.
This is my first trip report. I hope you'll enjoy it!
General Note: Picture-taking of strangers in Saudi society is *extremely* frowned upon.
Here's an example. A few months back I was in my car, driver seat, stuck in traffic on the Khobar-Bahrain causeway. My friends and I were bored so we took a few goofy photos of ourselves IN the car. Minutes later, what we perceived as a maniac was knocking violently on the car windows, demanding that we hand-over my camera! He objected to us taking a photo of his wife. But we couldn't even see his car, let alone his wife! Buzz-off Mr.! You get the idea... Picture-taking of airports and strategic installations is even a bigger risk and could land you in jail. For the sake of this trip report, I frankly didn't care. Besides, I had acquired a skill for discreet photo-taking. Flash is synonymous with "stop me silly!".
I booked Sama Airlines because I looked forward to trying a private Saudi airline since the late 90s when talk began circulating in the press about the airline industry's "impending" liberalization. At last, the consumer has an alternative to Saudi Arabian Airlines who are clearly lagging behind their GCC counterparts in service quality. Another reason I opted for Sama Airlines is their unbelievable fare of SR 202. This is the equivalent of $53.80, possibly the cheapest return ticket I ever bought! A superb deal, considering SV charges above $90.
Originally, I had booked a July 28th Sama flight to Riyadh. Unfortunately, I couldn't secure all the documents I needed for my student visa application in time for that trip. It was late Friday 27th July so great, I thought, I had ample time to modify my booking right? After all, Sama's booking modification policy requires you to call or log-on their website "at least three hours to departure". OK so I pick up my phone and dial their hotline 9200-05588. Busy signal. An hour later, tried many times but to no avail, busy signal. That evening and up to closure of their offices at 10:00PM, I tried their number at least 15 times, with no success. What a "pleasant" reminder you are in Saudi Arabia: lousy customer service. Alright... "No need to panic" I comforted myself, all I had to do was to log on to their website to modify the booking. I did just that, except my booking number wasn't recognized! I gave up and went to sleep... Wasting 200 rials wasn't my cup of tea but what to do? With my busy schedule week-long I wasn't in the mood of disputing anything. 5 days later I booked the Aug 4 flight and everything went OK.
The departure time is 0800 so I estimated I had to wake up at 05:00 hrs since the
drive to Dammam International Airport from Khobar where I live takes roughly 30 minutes.
Off I go at 06:00. The drive is quite pleasant at that time of the day. The heat is
reasonable: 38'C! I took the industrial estate-2 highway as if I was driving to Riyadh. Just
after the famous anti-aircraft installation, I would take the airport exit. As you can see
in the photo, driving through the desert is peaceful, there's nothing to see! All you have
is yourself and the dunes to admire. A few thoughts about my consul meeting and already
I had missed my exit! Perfect This mistake cost me another 10-minute detour drive.
|Driving through Khobar at 06:00|
|Dunes, dunes, and more dunes|
|Sama ad near the airport|
At 06:35 I arrived at the beautiful terminal building. Most Saudi airports are becoming
predictable in design and layout. A central building, an adjacent mosque and minaret, lush
landscaping. I drove into the parking building. Note to self: "parking D25", lest I forget!
Although the interior architecture of the terminal is magnificent, with plenty of fountains and atria,
the general mood of the airport is drab and dull. The check-in counters and overhead screens
were in dire need of a renovation. This space needed a "punch" and I thought a new low-cost
carrier such as Sama had an opportunity to inject some fresh fun ideas. A little color wouldn't hurt! of course, with the airport authority's consent.
|Check-in counters DMM|
I arrive at the check-in desk of Sama and I expectedly immediately saw their effort to uplift
the spirit of the airport. They veneered the awful dark burgundy walls/TV monitors with a smart-looking white plastic laminate with their logo. They could have gone the extra mile by installing LCDs, but since they're a low-cost operator gave them the credit deserved so far. The check-in agent had very few passengers to serve. A minute later it was my turn.
|Sama check-in counters. Notice the panelized retrofit.|
|More Sama ads... SR 69 to Riyadh. Now that's cheap!|
I produced my ID and booking number. The agent was courteous and energetic. He handed me my boarding pass. I was traveling light (only hand luggage). I walked away but remembered that I hadn't selected my seat so walked back to the agent and requested a window seat close to the front door. "No problem" he said, half the seats are empty". I was now ready to cross security into airside. I noticed some neat Sama ads all over the airport. Let's be realistic and honest here. Sama's strategy is to create an additional market within the kingdom and not to capture SV market share. This is still a heavily regulated economy and everything must receive royal (govt.) blessing. Sama was merely creating awareness within the terminal of its presence. On the Riyadh route, they offer 2 daily flights, while Saudi offers 10.
Ok walking past security, the airport ambience becomes even more quite. Hardly any noise anywhere, SV passengers sleep-walking/sitting near their gates. I spotted a few "hajjis" on their way to Jeddah (Mecca). My gate number is 123. Far north of the terminal. The view to the ramp was mostly obstructed by semi-transparent sun shades. At least the travelators were functioning so it cut my walking time to 5 minutes. Somewhere along the walk, gate 122 if I recall correctly, I found a clear window where I could take some pics (secretly, of course). There it was, the shiny Sama 737-300 docked at 123. I was eager to board! Among the aircraft I spotted: SV 777/MD-90, Biman DC-10-30, and another Sama 737.
|Our aircraft HZ-CJB|
I arrive at the gate and relax. I had about 10 minutes to official boarding time, an hour to actual departure. I took a shot of a few Saudis, I thought it captures their subdued spirits. What better remedy than Salsa music! I pull out my ipod and listen to some Raul Planas I had bought in Miami 2 weeks ago. I'm feeling better already! A few minutes later the Royal Jordanian crew walk-by, sporting very neat-looking uniforms . I started dreaming about Petra and how I long to visit Jordan again in the near future. My day-dreaming was brought to a halt by a few flies who seamed to appreciate my cologne. Argh!
It was 07:13 when our flight's cabin crew arrived and made their way into the aviobridge. Strange, if boarding was scheduled for 07:10. Among the cabin crew are a brunette lady with a thick Russian accent, and a Filipino man. I realized that this particular flight was definitely no a measure of the airline's overall reliability, since it was the first flight out of Dammam. Such laid back and casual attitude by staff, typical to the Saudi economy, would almost certainly cause significant delays later. A domino effect, I predicted...
At 07:35 my stomach made an announcement. I'm starving! All I had for breakfast was a chocolate muffin. I'm now contemplating the Sama onboard culinary experience! Yeah right!
The boarding announcement was made at 0745. Quick + efficient process. As we walked through the jetway, I quickly took a photo of the SV 777 parked at gate 122 (pic).
The female flight attendant was warm and welcoming; she is probably of Russian origin. Seat 3F is very close to the front door. Very convenient! I sat down and began examining the details of the cabin. Obviously it has been retrofitted for Sama. I appreciated the "leather" seats and customized embossing of the Sama logo on each seat. The captain made a brief announcement, he sounded American. We're ready for departure and everything is normal.
|Legroom is not bad.|
|SAMA Logo on backrest.|
07:50 doors closed and armed.
As we pushed back at 07:52, I looked back and took a photo of the cabin. The Filipino attendant's face expression as he saw me taking it: astonishment? bewilderment? confusion? you guess it!
Perhaps this was the first time someone takes a photo of him inside the cabin! Anyway, I counted souls on board: approximately 45. Not bad, considering Sama is a new airline. I had a quick glimpse through the dusty window. SV and ZS salad of 777, 733, EM9, and MD-90. You can see in the photo the sun is very harsh, and it's not even 0800 yet! Oh well, thank goodness for air conditioning in Saudi...and the cabin had a fresh, cool feel. As we taxiied to runway 34L, the purser announced the Islamic travel "dua"(prayers), quite customary and expected of any Saudi airline. Although I'm not religious, I find the prayers to be calming and peaceful. Here's the translation of the first few sentences:
“In the name of Allah and there is no power save with Allah. Praise be to Allah who made this (the means of transport) subservient to us, and we (by ourselves) could never have accomplished it”.
|Cleared for takeoff...|
We quickly arrived at the runway threshold and took off at exactly 08:03. My impression so far is positive. This is what the Saudi airline system needs: reliability and maximum efficiency. I wasn't about to complain why dates were not served, this is not Saudi Arabian Airlines! We climbed to 21,000 feet and cruised for about 20 minutes. Since I was starving, I quickly browsed the "Sama Sky Bar" menu and opted for the cheddar cheese sandwich.
|Menu du jour. *looks* good.|
I usually avoid mayonnaise, but since I had very little choice, I ordered this SR.8 item. I thought there was a stark difference between the sandwich depicted in the menu and the one I received.
|Lettuce, tomatoes, and even mayonnaiss, all mentioned in the menu, missing.|
|This one is imported from Jebel Ali, UAE|
My sandwich had no lettuce, no tomatoes, and not even mayonnaise! It was just a slice of yellow cheddar with traces of cucumber! (photo). I'm lactose intolerant so ate half the sandwich and ordered a Mars chocolate bar. Again, not what I expect from a Mars bar! The icing was stuck to the casing, and half the bar was of a different color and had melted. Logistics and shipping sub-standard. A prevailing problem in Middle Eastern manufacturing is lack of consistency. Not saying all Middle Eastern industries lack international standards, only that too many of them claim to be ISO certified yet fail to deliver consistent products! OK enough babbling about food and back to Sama.
At 07:30 we started descending. The sun is still very harsh to take any nice photos but I didn't see this as a problem (photos). Although I was born in Saudi, I still find the desert romantic and graceful. To my surprise we overflew Riyadh airport (photo). I figured we were about to land from the Southern direction. Minutes later we overflew some important buildings. Only 10 years ago, Riyadh had no landmarks. Not anymore. You can see Kingdom Center and Faisaliyyah Building, very impressive skyscrapers! As we turned to downwind direction, the awesome Riyadh football stadium appeared.
|Kingdom Center, Riyadh|
Video of final approach and landing (youtube):
We vacated the runway 33R and taxiied to gate D38. The ramp was bustling with activity. Besides the usual SV action, I noticed an SV A320 leased from a Turkish operator. It was parked next to our parking stand.
|Ramp overview while taxiing to parking stand 38|
|Our parking stand : No 38|
|SV A320, leased tom a Turkish operator|
It took less than 5 minutes for deplaning and arriving on the taxi curb outside the terminal. Incredible, given this used to be "the largest airport in the world".
|Interior of terminal (RUH)|
|RUH Airport Mosque|
Overall, I appreciated Sama's on time performance and general efficiency. I wasn't about to make any conclusions though, because as I said above, one can't judge from the first morning flight. I needed to put Sama to the afternoon test! I took a taxi to the Spanish embassy and met the Consul. The meeting went well, my student visa will take 25 days to process. I'm happy to be able to move to Madrid in late September. I took a taxi and headed back to the airport at 11:15AM. I had a vague idea that Sama operates 3 daily flights in each direction. I got to the airport and asked the Sama agent if he could rebook me from the 17:55 flight to an earlier one. No chance! They only operate 2 daily flights. Bugger! I had 7 hours to waste at soulless Riyadh airport! I walked to Kudu (local equivalent of Subway in America) and ordered a delicious teriyaki chicken sandwich with fries. I was lucky, because soon after I ordered my lunch, the restaurant had to close for prayers (welcome to Saudi!).
|Kudu closed for prayers.|
At 13:00 I went up to the Mezzanine waiting lounge and dozed off while listening to some Baroque classical music. The lounge was empty, so I was able to move around some metallic seats and made myself a nice comfy "bed". I had another 3 hours to kill before check-in opens. I came back down to collect my boarding pass at 15:45, then walked through security. 2 hours to go so I walked to a lounge offering a very nice view of the ramp. Noticed a NAS A320 (photo), an AF A319 (very unusual), Etihad A340, and the usual SV traffic. Although Riyadh airport has a beautiful layout and finishes, I thought the designers made a HUGE blunder. At all the boarding gates, if you're sitting down and facing the tarmac, your view of the horizon and most aircraft tails is obstructed by that annoying glass mullion. HOK (the architects of this airport) should have known better to annoy plane-spotters like me.
|Afternoon ramp overview|
|NAS A320 EC-ISI|
OK it was time for me to check the flight board for our boarding gate info. It was 16:30, yet Sama flight 553 wasn't listed. Another visit to the flight board at 17:15 and still the flight wasn't listed!
|Current time: 17:21 (My Sama 17:55 flight still not listed!)|
|Sama 737-300 HZ-DMO arrived late (1 hr) from oustation|
As I looked around I noticed another passenger with a Sama booking print-out. I asked if he knew anything. Turns out the flight is delayed. I went back to landside to see the Sama agent and enquire about the flight status. On the way i received a text message from Sama saying my flight from Dammam to Riyadh on August 5 is cancelled. That wasn't possible, I thought, since I wasn't supposed to take that flight (next day!). Obviously Sama's system had messed up somewhere... Anyway I reached the Sama agent and tried to maintain my calm. He said flight was delayed by 40 minutes. "Reason?" I asked. "Sorry sir but the aircraft is delayed at outstation". "OK why didn't you announce that on the flight board"?". "I'm sorry again sir but we did notify the airport authority of the delay...". That's simply inexcusable; it was first and foremost the airline's responsibility to announce delays to its passengers, by any means. Had I not noticed the gentleman with the Sama-print-out, I would still be upstairs clueless, with 20 minutes to scheduled departure. Oh well, I walked back to airside and waited some 30 minutes until the flight appeared on the board. It only said "delayed". I really hoped the flight wouldn’t be cancelled, since I had to get back to Khobar on the same night. Relief came 30 minutes later when I spotted a Sama 737-300 taxiing in to our gate D38. 20 minutes later we boarded, pushed back, and taxiied to the active runway. The load factor on this flight was slightly better (about 60%) and I noticed some familiar faces who took the same morning flight. We took off at 18:55, a delay of 1 hour. Dusk is my favorite time of take off, at least in the Middle East, because the sun is not so strong, so you can actually look out and appreciate the scenery.
We landed at 20:35 and made it to my car in the parking garage at 20:45.
I'm not going to make any definitive statement about Sama Airlines but I can tell you this: They have a unique opportunity to present the flying public with a truly reliable, efficient, and competitive product. From the 2 flights I experienced with them, their score is barely a pass mark. The onboard bar was terrible, although the graphics and nice presentation on the menu were deceiving. Leather seats and leg room definitely OK. The Saudi cabin crew on the return journey looked miserable and sad. Their hotline almost always returns a busy signal and their online booking engine can't recognize their own booking numbers. On a better note, I liked their uniform, very sleek dark navy blue with turquoise lining.
It's high time the Saudi / expat flying public got their money's worth. Sama is still a weak alternative to SV who are rarely late these days (at least domestic flights). Hopefully Sama will tackle the teething problems by putting their house in order: crew have to show up on time, more staff should be employed at the call center, and consistent, delicious food should be available on board (at a price of course). Money talks so yes, I would fly Sama again.
[Edited 2007-08-06 20:53:23]
[Edited 2007-08-06 21:09:31]