At the World Airline Awards held at the Paris Air Show on June 20, Skytrax announced the world’s Top 100 Airlines in 2017, as voted by airline customers around the world.
The awards, described as “the Oscars of the aviation industry,” are the most coveted quality accolades for the world airline industry and a global benchmark of airline excellence.
Saudi Arabia’s national airlines surprised many industry pundits when it garnered a heap of awards at the ceremony. It was named the World’s Most Improved Airline, an award that reflects an airline’s quality improvement across the entire Airline Awards program.
This analyses an airline’s change within the global ratings, and its performance improvement in many of the award categories (e.g., airport service, cabin staff, catering, IFE, etc.) to identify the most improved airline over the last 12 months.
Previous winners of this prestigious award include Thai Airways, Air France, Garuda Indonesia, China Southern Airlines and Hong Kong Airlines. Saudi Airlines also garnered an award in the category, World’s Best Economy Class Airlines 2017.
Saleh Al-Jasser has intensified his resolve to direct the airline toward a profitable path; one that sits well with the customers it is meant to serveTariq A. Al-Maeena
So what happened?
This was an airline that was constantly picked apart by the media and by dissatisfied customers in the 1990s and the early part of this millennium. It was the butt of jokes among savvy travelers who preferred to use other international carriers when flying in and out of the Kingdom.
However, it was when a change in management resulted in a new CEO at the helm three years ago that the airline began to shift the tide. Saleh N. Al-Jasser who was appointed director general of Saudi Airlines in 2014 meant business; he had not come on board just to keep the CEO seat warm. He was going to use his time as the head of the airline to make a difference. And he did exactly that.
He began by streamlining operations, opening communication channels and most importantly getting rid of the ineffectual deadwood executives who had for so long treated the airline as their personal property. He brought in foreign expertise.
He delegated and held executives accountable, a practice long missing in the airline. Some of the staff used to the previous methods of running the ship were obviously not too pleased with this change in direction, but that did not deter Al-Jasser.
He replaced an aging fleet with modern aircraft to keep abreast of passenger demands. He enforced the priority of customer service that is beginning to show in the attitude of the staff.
Al-Jasser and his team were unquestionably the dynamo that led to the airline’s surge in international rankings. Even though there were some early critics including members of the Shoura Council, they were soon silenced by the positive transformation that began to take place.
On 17 April 2016, Saleh Al-Jasser announced the launching of a new airline subsidiary that provides low cost services and caters to domestic travelers, Haj and Umrah pilgrims, and the rising number of tourists to Saudi Arabia, among other groups.
This announcement was made at a ceremony that included a number of chief executives of the strategic units of Saudi Arabian Airlines Company, specialized experts and journalists.
The airline’s first flight took off on September 23 of this year, a vision that has become a reality. The venture is part of Saudia Group’s SV2020 Transformation Strategy, which aims to elevate the group’s units into world-class organizations by 2020.
There are plans to privatize Saudia and Flyadeal in a single transaction, according to a local media report. The rest of Saudia businesses, which have not been privatized, are to be included in the 2020 plan.
They include the cargo, maintenance, training, medical and real estate units of the state-backed carrier. A privatization plan that was announced in the 1990s has suddenly sprung into life.
Previous CEOs had been brought in to turn the airline around, but they fell short of expectations. This time the new CEO has made a difference. Someone told me that when he was first appointed, al-Jasser vowed to make a difference for the better.
Over time, it has been proven that Saleh al-Jasser has intensified his resolve to direct the airline toward a profitable path; one that sits well with the customers it is meant to serve. And the transformation of the airline and the awards it has begun to pick up are a reflection of that determination.
With the current flight path that the airline has embarked on, there should be more awards flying Saudi Airline’s way.
This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on September 27, 2017.
Tariq A. Al-Maeena is a Saudi writer. Twitter @talmaeena.