Saudia Airlines: A mission toward excellence

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What a difference a change in leadership makes. Just a little over five years ago, the very mention of Saudia Airlines would bring a shudder through the traveling public. Travelers would go to great lengths to avoid flying the national airline because of its overall inefficiency. What was once destined to be a heavyweight among carriers in the region sadly lagged far behind.

It was an airline seemingly destined for success by virtue of a budget generously provided by the government, an enviously guaranteed annual market in Haj and Umrah traffic, and a population size that greatly surpassed the rest of the GCC.

Unfortunately, at that time the organization took the form of a country club where entry to executive levels was granted not based on one’s professional abilities, but rather on how strong one’s connections were. Key positions were staffed by individuals with very little knowledge of global aviation strategy or customer service, a primary indicator of an airline’s health.

Accountability did not exist, and the organization was mostly run to serve the executives running the show. In the midst of such a corrosive corporate identity, some of the conscientious elements within the organization chose to either leave or to not participate in such a caustic atmosphere. As a result, morale sank to a noticeable low, leading to poor service across the organization. It was indeed a cash cow for those running the airline.

With the appointment of a new CEO in 2014, suddenly things started moving in the right direction. Saleh N. Al-Jasser, the newly appointed director general of Saudia Airlines, brought in with him a fresh spirit, a “can do” spirit of change. He has introduced corporate discipline. Unlike his predecessors, he began by getting rid of senior deadwood executives who had been hanging on tenaciously to their positions for decades and had contributed nothing of significance to the airline’s growth. Accountability was a major fact in this process of change, and those who failed to meet expectations were quickly shown the door.

Within three years of Mr. Al-Jasser at the helm, the airline began to make a dramatic transformation. In 2017, Saudia was named the “World’s Most Improved Airline”, an award reflecting an airline’s quality improvement across the entire Airline Awards program. That same year, as a result of the new spirit and direction of airline executives, Saudia Airlines also garnered an award in the “World’s Best Economy Class Airlines 2017” category.

In 2018, Saudia was awarded the CAPA Asia Pacific Turnaround Airline of the Year, an award earned by an airline that has turned around through innovative strategic changes and/or a restructuring exercise. Saudia was selected for its successful transformation, which has resulted in significant efficiency improvements, in-flight product upgrades, fleet renewal and an accelerated growth rate. Its upstart subsidiary, flyadeal, a low budget domestic airline which went into operation in 2017, was selected for its highly successful launch and innovative marketing strategy.

The airline had embarked on an ambitious transformation program three years earlier aimed at improving its efficiency and product under Saleh Al-Jasser’s leadership. Since then it has brought in more than 70 aircraft, resulting in a young new fleet with new in-flight products and higher service standards. Today, it can proudly boast of being one of the youngest fleets in the world, with an average age of less than five years.

Again in 2018, yet another award followed when Saudia Airlines became the brand most positively spoken about among millennials in the country, followed by iPhone and Apple, according to data collected in the 52 weeks up to August 31, 2018, by YouGov’s tracking tool, BrandIndex. “The dominance of technology brands in the rankings suggests that youth today are constantly engaging with technology,” the company’s head for the Middle East and North Africa region stated. “These brands have been able to build a positive image among the digital natives.”

Yes indeed, the airline has changed dramatically. Today the airline is steadily regaining the lost trust of the past and has become one of the dominant forces in the region. New challenges and horizons await as the airline’s leadership plans further improvement.

Taking into account the success in the transformation of this giant corporation in a few short years, I am confident that more awards and honors will follow. With the current leadership, one can be assured that the airline will achieve its mission toward excellence.

The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena


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