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A New Concept for Saudi Arabian Airlines – Customer Service

February 28, 2011

Today’s Arab News carries a story headed Saudia aims to become customer oriented airline. It quotes Khalid Al Molhem, the airline’s director general, as saying that Saudia plans to become a customer oriented airline by “improving its services in all operation areas…”.

It has some way to go.

For many reasons, Saudi Arabian Airlines is not my favourite mode of transport. In the 1980s its main saving grace was that it offered an alternative to the gruesome flights to London offered by British Airways, and later on by British Caledonian. Usually packed full of people who had not had a drink for weeks or months, The British Airways redeye flight from Jeddah often descended into a seething mass of inebriation. For this reason, BA would staff the flights with an unusally high proportion of male stewards, and stewardesses who, shall we say, were more mature in years than the average cabin crew. Even this didn’t stop the odd opportunistic lunge and grope before the passengers slumped into drunken anaesthesia.

This was why Saudia became my carrier of choice to London. Because its flights were alcohol-free, at most times of the year they were half empty. Not good for the airline, but great if you wanted to sleep across four seats. Actually getting on the flight was a different matter. Queuing was an alien concept. Scenes at Tripoli airport, as thousands of stranded workers scrambled to get out of Libya, remind me of a typical day at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, especially at the high season.

Getting on a domestic flight was equally a hit or miss affair. In fact I have Saudia to thank for one of my more memorable journeys in the Kingdom. Back in 2008, I had just arrived in Riyadh. I didn’t have a car at that time, and I needed to take a trip to the Eastern Province. In those days people were a little more nervous about the threat of terrorism against foreigners. It had only been eighteen months since the last lethal attack.

I got to the airport in time for the Dammam flight, only to find that my reservation wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. It turned out that contrary to information I received from the travel agent, I was actually on the wait list. When I went to check in, I was sent a floor down to the standby desk, which I then discovered doubles as a ticket desk. There was a queue of fifty people with one person at the desk. I went to the front of the queue in time-honoured fashion and asked him how I was to get a boarding pass. He said “flight is full. Come back at 4pm for the next flight”. So I said “do I have any chance of getting on that flight?” He replied “all flights to Damman are full”. “So what’s the point of coming back at 4pm?” “All flights to Dammam are full. That is your problem”. He then went back to dealing with his fifty queuing customers. Lesson learned: only show up for a Saudia flight if you have a confirmed reservation, and make sure you check that you actually have one.

Not in the best of humour, I decided I was going to get to Dammam whether Saudia liked it or not. I went to the taxi rank and asked for quotes to take me to there. 500 riyals seemed to be the consensus. After much uproar and argument as to who should take me, a grizzled local hauled my bags off and put them in his cab. He spoke vbery little English. On the way out of the airport I double checked the price. “700 riyals” he said. After much heated argument, angry gesticulation and my demands in the manner of an affronted memsahib to “take me back to the terminal”, he seemed to agree to 500 riyals.

Fifty kilometers out of Riyadh, he stopped for gas, and a couple of minutes later told me that another person would be taking me to Dammam! “Good car – Toyota Prado!”, he said. It seemed that he had asked around to see who was going to Dammam, found a guy called Abdullah, offered him 250 riyals to take me. The deal was that they would split the 500 riyals 50:50. So my taxi driver would take 250 for driving me to the outskirts of Riyadh!

I looked at the prospective driver, looked at his car, and thought what are the chances of my being dragged out to the desert and never seen again. He seemed like a nice guy, was smaller than me, so I thought I’d give it a go. Three and a half hours later, after a journey in which I slept much of the time and for the remainder tested my Arabic to the full in trying to chat to him, he dropped me to my destination.

I reflected afterwards that sleeping was probably not a good idea, but the driver turned out to be an ordinary guy on his way home to Jubail who was glad of the petrol money. I felt a little ashamed at my suspicious nature, but still pretty cross at the taxi driver who had abandoned me.

Looking back, I probably took a bit of a risk, but given that I was due to get my wheels the following week, the circumstances were unlikely to occur again. What put things into a different perspective was that the next night one of my friends in Dammam contacted me to say that there had been an alert from the US embassy about a possible attack on western expatriates in central Riyadh that weekend. A salutary reminder that this was not Arizona.

Saudia has had other less than finest hours since then. During the Jeddah floods of  November 2009, its computer system went down for some time thanks to a leaking roof, compounding the chaos in the city. As for customer service, Saad Al Dosari in his blog does a far better job than I ever could to illustrate its limitations in his 2009 piece Who Says Camels Can’t Dance?

To be fair to Saudia, it has made steps in the right direction. It has ordered a host of new aircraft, and clearly intends to clean up its act as it tried to meet the standards expected as a member of the SkyTeam Alliance.  And it has much to contend with beyond its control. A high level of no-shows, creaking infrastructures at some of the Kingdom’s airports, most notoriously Jeddah, and stiff competition from foreign airlines operating on its routes.  It also suffers in comparison with Emirates, Qatar and Etihad – national airlines that sit at the heart of their countries’ development strategies.

But the fact that it feels the need to announce to its own staff that it intends to become a customer oriented airline tell its own story. As a symbol of national pride, it’s currently way off the mark.

  1. Greetings..

    SV operates as if it is a government office and it’s staff as government clerks that can not loose their jobs no matter how unprofessional/ unproductive they act towards passengers – mind you we are still “paying customers”. There is no competition (even with Nasair flying – just ask Sama!) as the commercial aviation environment is so unhealthy.

    The inter-workings of the administration and staff assignment is so haphazard and based on who you know and how much you are welling to make your boss happy by not showing up to your shift. Pilots are getting less benefits and scheduled unjustly – where high ranking and influenced pilots get the nice flights where they may fly less than 3 flights per month while the rest of teh time being in their “created” office positions. My father in law knows all these issues much to well.

    Such short comings coupled with poorly maintained airports (responsibility of GACA) make the overall flying experience as ridiculous as they come. Just this morning I flew from Riyadh to Dammam, the flight was not called for nor was it designated at the screen.. no one eager to help you and by 30minutes prior to scheduled departure one would hear someone yelling near gate 34 “DAMMAM… ANYONE MORE FOR DAMMAM?” – oh yes and this is not Jeddah airport!

    I don’t see good things happening.. even with their new aircraft and so called plans for revamping service.

    All the best to you!

    • Thanks Hani.

      I think there are lots of people who believe that the whole transportation system – including GACA and Saudia – needs a lot of attention. As you say, it’s not just a case of shiny new aircraft and airports – it’s about a serious change of mindset on the part of people. I spent most of the 80’s working in civil aviation in the Kingdom – it’s sad to see how things have changed for the worse. Nothing to do with less expatriates like me, by the way – more about complacency and unwillingness to kick on for excellence.

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