Riyadh Air CEO talks about the airline's sky-high ambitions
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Riyadh Air’s Tony Douglas on the airline’s sky-high ambitions

Riyadh Air’s Tony Douglas on the airline’s sky-high ambitions

Riyadh Air’s CEO reveals the airline’s plans, focus on digital innovations and its vision for shaping the future of aviation

Neesha Salian
Tony Douglas CEO of Riyadh Air _ Image Getty Images

Riyadh Air, Saudi Arabia’s newest airline, recently celebrated its first anniversary under the stewardship of its charismatic CEO Tony Douglas.

Since its launch in March 2023, the kingdom’s second national carrier, recognised by its unique ‘RX’ code, has marked its presence on the global aviation landscape.

From placing a significant order of Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners to power its fleet (with a rumoured narrow-body aircraft order in the offing) and unveiling stunning dual-livery designs at the Paris and Dubai air shows last year to signing strategic cooperation agreements with Saudia and Turkish Airlines and its fashion line reveal at the Paris Fashion Week in June, Riyadh Air has showcased its commitment to redefining air travel.

Read: Riyadh Air soars on Paris runway, unveils exclusive fashion collection

Riyadh Air also partnered with Singapore Airlines and Air China as the Saudi startup carrier grows its potential network ahead of launching commercial operations next year.

Additionally, its collaborations with leading technology firms such as Lufthansa Systems, IBM Consulting, Sabre and Adobe demonstrate Riyadh Air’s positioning as a digitally-native airline, leveraging advanced technology to enhance the passenger experience and operational efficiency. The airline is also on target to launch flights in the summer of next year, to fly to 100 countries by 2030. Douglas recently told the media that the airline had welcomed its first batch of pilots and was expected to start certification flights in September.

The carrier also witnessed the arrival of its third batch of cabin crew and was poised to move into its new headquarters this summer. We chatted with the Riyadh Air CEO at the recent Arabian Travel Market, to learn more about the airline’s plans, focus on digital innovations and its vision for shaping the future of aviation. Here are excerpts from the discussion.

Riyadh Air
Image: Riyadh Air

You signed a key MoU with the Saudi Tourism Authority at ATM 2024 in Dubai. Tell us more about its impact.

Saudi Arabia has emerged as the second “most searched” tourism destination, according to Google Analytics data from 2023. This highlights the growing interest and curiosity surrounding the country’s attractions and offerings, which include AlUla, Diriyah and Tabuk.

However, one of the common challenges faced by potential visitors is accessibility. Riyadh Air recognises this challenge and aims to address it by establishing comprehensive global, regional and national networks. This initiative will not only provide Saudi citizens with greater access to the world, but it will also facilitate easier travel for international tourists to explore the attractions of Saudi Arabia.

The MoU with the Saudi Tourism Authority outlines our commitment to collaborate closely with the tourism ministry to enhance connectivity and accessibility for travellers.

Tell us about the vision driving Riyadh Air. What are the innovations you are introducing?

The legacy we’re creating for Riyadh Air is monumental and comparable to the transformative impact that airlines such as Emirates and Qatar Airways have had on their respective regions. As the largest commercial aviation startup in modern history, we’re setting the stage for a world-class carrier that not only connects Saudi Arabia to the world but also facilitates seamless global connectivity to the kingdom.

Obsessive attention to detail with guest experience is the cornerstone of our legacy as is a digitally native approach, where connectivity, innovation and passenger experience take centre stage. We are not encumbered by old legacy systems or practices; we are setting new benchmarks. For example, we are poised to revolutionise the airline industry with an innovative approach that leverages digitalisation and biometrics to create a seamless and personalised customer experience. This is similar to what you’d expect from companies such as Amazon or Uber. Imagine a user-friendly interface where you can plan your entire trip. For example, where you tell the system your budget, desired travel window, and preferences (hotel class or cabin class), and it curates personalised itineraries, adding hotels, attractions, and even restaurant recommendations to your trip basket.

Also, your face becomes your passport, boarding pass and payment method, eliminating queues and frustrations.
Facial recognition technology goes beyond security. It will allow us to personalise your experience even further. For example, if you are left-handed, facial recognition ensures your cutlery is placed accordingly when you travel with us. Your profile also becomes your loyalty programme, offering rewards and catering to your past preferences. Riyadh Air promises even more innovations when it comes to in-flight entertainment. Imagine streaming your favourite shows and movies, just like you do on the ground, and more innovations.

Thanks to cutting-edge Wi-Fi technology, passengers will also enjoy lightning-fast connectivity, enabling seamless access to an array of digital experiences.
Moreover, environmental sustainability is integral to our legacy. Unlike retrofitting sustainability into existing frameworks, it’s ingrained in our design philosophy from day one. We’re leading the way in implementing eco-friendly practices that minimise our carbon footprint and contribute to a greener future for aviation.

What can we expect from Riyadh Air in the coming months?

As we progress toward our inaugural flight in mid-next year, there are certainly some surprises in store for our passengers and the industry. In October, we’ll unveil the details that will rival the historic launch of the iPhone. It will redefine the way passengers engage with our airline, transcending traditional cabin experiences.

Douglas also spoke about the crew fashion line, which debuted in June at Paris Fashion Week.

Tell us about your style of leadership and the legacy you are building.

I believe in creating a family where everybody’s equal, and I think we’ve done that at Riyadh Air. Every member of the team feels like they have an equal stake in our success. Our family’s got energy, it’s got alignment and it’s got passion because it’s connected to the brand, and the brand is ‘Riyadh’. It’s not about hierarchies or titles; it’s about recognising that each member plays a crucial role in our collective success.

Ultimately, my legacy as a leader will be defined by the strength of our team, the success of our endeavours, and the positive impact we make on our industry. It’s about building a legacy of unity, excellence, and unwavering dedication to our shared vision.

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