Hello and thank you for reading this trip report outlining my journey from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to Los Angeles, California, USA. The purpose of this trip was to take some time off work to go and celebrate my 25th birthday with friends and family in Los Angeles, California. I’ve broken it up into three parts. Part 1 is about getting out of Saudi Arabia, Part 2 is the journey from Dubai to New York on Emirates in First Class on the A380 and Part 3 is my American Airlines trip from New York to Los Angeles in Eco.
Part 1 of the three part journey outlines my trip from Riyadh to Dubai on Saudi Arabian Airlines. I live in Dubai and work for a consulting firm, which requires me to spend 4-5 days per week at the client site in Riyadh. The journey from Riyadh to Dubai is one that I have done no fewer than 80 times before (twice a week for over a year), but since I do it so often and it’s always the same, I don’t usually write a trip report. But I figured why not capture all the details since I am writing about the other two legs of the journey anyway?
Saudi Arabian Airlines flight 552. This is the flight that just about every consultant living in Dubai and working in Riyadh takes every Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday is the end of the Saudi work week (the weekend is Thursday/Friday). I am no exception – just like 200 of my consultant, banker, lawyer, or industry colleagues, I trek across to Saudi Arabia 4-5 days a week and take SV
552 back to Dubai on Wednesday afternoon. But today is different. Today, I am leaving on Tuesday instead of Wednesday. I have holidays coming up, and I am scheduled to fly to America on the Emirates A380 in First Class on Wednesday morning. So, I have to leave Riyadh one day early.
And it’s a good thing for my blood pressure that I am flying out on Tuesday this week, because the travel experience on a Wednesday is pretty grim, what with the planes always full, the airline’s service far from expedient, and both Riyadh and Dubai airports crowded. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like this Tuesday is much different from that point of view than the Wednesday experience I am used to.
It is 2:30pm and I am sitting in my office in the client’s building in Riyadh. I am trying to wrap up a set of slides quickly so that I can send them off to the client and be on my way. The tea boy, Jahangir, comes in and asks if I want something to drink. His job is to walk the halls and serve tea and coffee to the employees on our floor. What comes with the job is getting yelled at and mistreated by several of my colleagues. I tell him “turkish coffee dhao, sini nahi” which I believe means bring a Turkish coffee without sugar in Bengali. Jahangir is from Dhaka in Bangladesh, and we have known each other for more than a year now.
I finish off the slides, print them out and walk them over to Abu Abdullatif, whose first name is Khaled but no one calls him that. We all refer to him as “Father of Abdullatif” which is a common tradition in the Arab world. Abu Abdullatif likes the slides, and I bid him farewell and tell him that I look forward to seeing him on the 17th of May, and that he should not hesitate to phone me at any time if he needs anything. In turn, he wishes me a pleasant trip.
It’s now 3pm and change from my suit into a pair of jeans. My flight is at 5:35pm, but I want to leave now so that I get to the airport early. It’s only half an hour’s journey, but I’m damned if I’m missing the flight today.
In reality, I could arrive at the airport much later and still make the flight. But, weeks of experience doing this suggest that the sooner I arrive, the better it is. If there is one thing you can be sure of at Riyadh airport, it is pandemonium. Better get it over with as soon as possible.
I am downstairs in the parking at 3pm and I am met by my driver, Atef, a young Pakistani gentleman from Faisalabad. I hop in the Chevrolet Caprice (which is actually a Holden built in Australia and rebadged as a Chevy and sold in the Gulf States) and off we go to the airport.
Airport highway in Riyadh:
The police checkpoint on the highway is not crowded, and we make it to the airport in about 20 minutes.
A bit of landscape around the airport:
Riyadh Airport is divided into three or four terminals – Saudi Domestic, Saudi Airlines International, and Foreign Airlines International. There is also VIP/Private Aviation terminal, but I haven’t been there before.
Here are the terminal buildings on the right (departures level):
I walk into the terminal and as is the case with just about every other airport in the Middle East, I have to put my bags through a scanning machine and walk through a metal detector before going in the check in area. I notice today that the metal detector doesn’t work. In fact, it never worked, but for whatever reason I’ve become so accustomed to walking through it that I haven’t noticed.
As usual – the check in area is a mess. There are two counters for First Class, two counters for Horizon (Business) Class and two counters for Economy. There are more bags in the area than people, and the arrangement of passengers in front of the desks is more like what you expect of people waiting on a train platform than of people queuing in a single file line.
I join the “queue” and wait my turn. Several people who have just arrived walk up to the front of the queue and say they are going to Kuwait (a flight which is about to close) and the check in staff interrupt what they are doing to give them their boarding passes.
The queue I am in is moving dreadfully slowly, and I am stuck in front of a gentleman who insists on talking on his mobile phone in a very loud tone of voice. “I AM IN
THE AIRPORT NOW I AM
KUWAIT. CLIENT MEETING WENT WELL. THE IMPORTANT THING NOW IS
TALKING ABOUT 4, THEY ARE CLOSER TO
3.” I tune out and continue waiting in line. Unfortunately, the guy in front of me smells so bad that I twist my neck to the left so as to avoid hitting his pong straight on with my nose. Of course, I am used to this.
About 15 minutes later, the line has moved a bit, but in the meantime a few people have decided to cut in the front of the queue. One brave non-national decided to challenge one such passenger about cutting in the queue, and was ignored.
Finally, I get to the front of the queue. Masa el kheir, I tell the check in agent. Good afternoon. He doesn’t bother replying. I give him my passport and say I am going to Dubai, inchallah. He takes my passport and types my surname into the computer, achieving a typing rate of 1 key stroke every 30 seconds. Luckily my last name is only 7 letters long. Five minutes later, he mumbles “maak 3afsh?” Do I have any luggage? Nope. But please give me a window seat on the right hand side of the airplane, please.
The computer spits out my boarding pass. Seat 54C. Thanks mate. I ask you for window on the left side and you give me an aisle on the right hand. So much for asking for an aisle, but I can’t be bothered to go back and ask him to change it (I later got it changed inside the terminal).
Saudi Airlines has an interesting philosophy to numbering its seats. All aircraft have the exact same seat numbers. Anything C, D, H, or J are aisle seats. Anything A or L is a window. On the 747-400, for example, the four seats in the middle are lettered DEFH, so that the 5-abreast seating on the 777 can accommodate DEFGH and the airline can maintain H as an airline seat. So he’s given me a middle seat. Oh well. I’ll not be coming back here for at least 3 weeks.
Next step is immigration. On Wednesday afternoons, this place is usually crowded, with flights to Beirut, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Dubai all going out at approximately the same time. What do you know, it’s crowded today as well. The passport control supervisor barks at me to go and stand in a certain line, which I do, and about 10 minutes later I get to the immigration officer’s desk. Thankfully, they have abandoned the use of exit cards at Riyadh Airport (though they still use them in Dammam). I give him my passport, and tell him I am going to Dubai. He looks at my visa, upon which it is written my name, surname, nationality, religion, job, and sponsor in Saudi Arabia. Again, he types in my last name. He’s a bit faster than the check in agent and manages to input my surname in only 90 seconds. A quick stamp of the passport later, and I am done.
Moving onto security – this is always a pain in the proverbial. Here there are two lines – one for men and one for women. I know better than to expect that I can go through the metal detector with my shoes, belt and watch on, so I take them all off while still in the queue. Unfortunately, the people ahead of me are not so wise. One guy in a suit walks through the metal detector and it goes off. “Hizam, jazma” barks the security officer. Take off your belt and shoes. In the meantime, the guy behind him tries walk through and is greeted with the same response. All of a sudden everyone is taking their belt and shoes off and trying to put them all on the conveyor at the same time. Of course, on the other end of the x-ray machine, the operator is having a tea and will only be bothered to move the conveyor when he feels like it.
Ironically, this charade at security exists because of the work of 19 men, 14 of whom were from Saudi Arabia and 2 of whom were from the UAE. The two countries in my itinerary today.
When my turn finally comes, I walk through perfectly. No beeping! I collect my bag and put my watch, belt and shoes back on. I wonder how many pairs of my socks have had the experience of walking on the filthy floor of Riyadh Airport’s security area before?
Here is a shot of the inside of Riyadh Airport:
As usual, the gate for SV
552 this evening will be number 26. For once, the aircraft is not there yet. Rather, there is a different 777-200ER heading for Beirut.
The flight to Beirut eventually takes off, and at about 5pm our 777 arrives. It is HZ
-AKA, an aircraft I have been on 5 times before. I also had the pleasure of flying it from Riyadh to Dubai about 1 month ago, where we had the pleasure of a diversion to Dammam while Dubai Airport was closed, and it took us about 7 hours to get home.
Saudi Arabian Airlines
Flight Number: SV 552
Origin: Riyadh King Khaled International Airport (RUH), Terminal 2
Destination: Dubai International Airport (DXB), Terminal 1
Departure time: 5:35pm (scheduled), 5:50pm (actual)
Arrival time: 8:15pm (scheduled), 8:10pm (actual)
Flight time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Aircraft: Boeing 777-268ER
Registration: HZ-AKA (delivered to SV in December 1997)
While waiting for the flight to board, I decided to take a couple of photos. Here is an SV
Air India 747-400 operating the early evening service to Delhi and Bombay:
Sudan Air A300 presumably arriving from Khartoum. My first time seeing this airline in Riyadh:
Sama Airlines (local Saudi carrier) 737-300 in front of a Garuda 747-400:
And finally HZ
-AKA pulls up to our gate:
I board the plane and take my seat (54L – I had had it changed inside the terminal). Here is row 54:
Miraculously the plane isn’t too full and we are able to move quite quickly. As usual, Saudi Arabian Airlines plays the du’a el safar (traveller’s supplication) as we taxi out. This is the supplication that the Prophet Mohammed used to say upon commencing his journey, and I have heard it literally 80 times now.
Our taxi out to the runway is quite and we are airborne by 6pm. The view out the window:
Soon enough, the inflight entertainment starts and the dinner service begins. They always serve the exact same food on the flight, but at least you do get a hot meal on a 1.5 hour flight which is more than can be said for flights in the US.
The direction to Mecca (I never figured out what the Qiblah is though obviously I know it is the direction that Muslims pray. Can anyone help me out?)
The presentation of dinner:
And the meal itself (I had chicken):
Since I knew I was going to write a trip report, I decided to explore the entertainment system which is believe it or not something I never bothered to do in the 80 times I had flown this route before.
I found it funny (though not surprised) that the airline blocks out obscenities in their videos. I hope you can tell from this photo – even though it is not a very good shot – that this woman’s arms and breasts have been blurred out. Pornography!!
After dinner I decided to have a quick browse through the English newspaper I had picked up from the cabin crew. Here is the Saudi gazette:
Incidentally, in Arabic newspapers the King is never referred to as the King. He is referred to as “khadem al haramayn al charifayn” which translates into “The Custodian of the two holy mosques” in English. Even in newspapers, they sometimes include this title whenever mentioning King Abdullah.
The prayer schedule is a fixture of any newspaper in Saudi:
A nice article:
Another interesting article – I’ll see it when I believe it:
Again, since I was going to write this trip report I decided to look at the duty free magazine which I had never bothered to do before. Saudi Arabian Airlines must be the only airline on the planet that doesn’t sell drinks or cigarettes in the duty free. They do however sell this toothbrush which I see many people using but don’t know what it does – Sewak:
After about 1 hour and 20 minutes in the air, we touched down at Dubai airport and for once approached from the sea. Even though we had boarded late, we had arrived early. In 80+ flights on Saudi Arabian Airlines, I do not remember more than 3 of them being delayed. Not a bad record at all (unfortunately my domestic flights are very often delayed).
Here is a quick shot of Dubai on approach and the inside of Terminal 1:
Thanks for reading this report and I welcome your commentary. I just hope that I can entice you to read part II
about my journey from Dubai to New York on Emirates on the A380 as well (posted separately in the forums)!
PARIS, FRANCE...THE BEIRUT OF EUROPE.