How Tony Douglas Is Building Riyadh Air To Be A Better Airline

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Summary

  • Tony Douglas, CEO of Riyadh Air, relishes the opportunity to build an airline from scratch with innovative digitalization at its core.
  • Riyadh Air, funded by Saudi’s PIF, prioritizes transparency, profitability, and environmental sustainability from the outset.
  • The airline plans to launch operations in 2025 with a focus on offering high-tech, connected experiences to Saudi Arabia’s young population.

It’s one thing to come into a struggling airline and turn things around, but quite another to set up a clean sheet carrier from scratch. Not many CEOs get the opportunity to do either – certainly not both. But for Tony Douglas, CEO of Riyadh Air, proving his turnaround prowess at one Middle East airline has opened the door to a dream opportunity to get it right from the start.

The airline that Tony built

Despite many years in aviation and a high profile in the sector, Tony Douglas has never launched an airline before. While he did great things at Etihad, his remit there was very much to come in and deliver transformation in five years, which he successfully achieved. But the proposition of starting an airline from scratch, with no legacy hangovers, presented the perfect opportunity for the next step in his career.

Photo: Riyadh Air

“I’ve never done a startup before, and that was the attraction for me,” Tony explained on the sidelines of the CAPA Airline Leaders Summit.

“This, as a startup for me, is amazing. It’s an opportunity, as I always joke, to bring to it the only qualification I think I’ve actually got, and that’s a PhD and how not to do it … We hope it will come in useful because we haven’t got anybody to refer to in the context of the past – there was no past. So this is just incredible.”

Building it right

Starting from scratch means designing the best airline from the get-go. For Riyadh Air, that means building digitalization into the heart of the business, and for good reason. The 32 million-strong population of Saudi Arabia has an average age of just 29, with almost two-thirds under the age of 30. This large cohort of ‘digital natives’ demands high-tech, connected experiences, and that’s driving some exciting innovation at Riyadh Air.

Riyadh Air Boeing 787

Photo: Riyadh Air

Douglas alluded to such wonders as AI check-in, superfast WiFi on board, immersive IFE, and other exciting developments. However, he wouldn’t be drawn on specifics, saying only that there would be multiple announcements over the course of the coming year. Eyeing an Air Operator Certificate in hand by the end of the year, the CEO explained,

“The nomenclature we use with the whole of the Riyadh Air family is 2024 is the ‘year of readiness.’ So it’s all about putting everything in place to be able to then pivot into an operational business.”

Riyadh Air Boeing 787

Photo: Riyadh Air

Riyadh Air has already ordered a fleet of Dreamliners ready for the launch of operations in 2025. An order for narrowbodies is coming, and the smart money is on the Boeing 737 MAX family, but Tony does like to surprise his observers in situations like this and noted that “it isn’t over until it’s over.”

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Transparency and profitability from the start

Funded by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, Riyadh Air has a firm financial footing behind it. Douglas intends to keep it that way, describing PIF as a ‘red-blooded, capitalistic’ investor with a laser focus on creating sustainable businesses.

“It’s that absolute financial overarching rigor. This is not about ‘we want a big airline, so let’s have one’ – the financial rigor is built in. The other thing that’s great is that PIF has got investments across the whole of its portfolio in so many things. That gives us a unique opportunity with sister companies, for example, in the technology space. We’ve got instant access to lots of things that, ordinarily, we wouldn’t have access to.”

Riyadh Air Boeing 787

Photo: Riyadh Air

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The sustainability of Riyadh Air is not just about finances either, but also about environmental sustainability. Later this year, it will release its first sustainability report, an initiative Tony Douglas introduced at Etihad that has helped the airline win accolades for its efforts. Yet, unlike Etihad, which only brought in sustainability reporting after well over a decade in business, Riyadh Air will embrace this transparency from the get-go.

While the launch is scheduled for around halfway through 2025, it’s clear the Riyadh Air team is not resting on its laurels. Preparations for a smooth launch are in full swing, and Douglas is clearly relishing this opportunity to realize his vision for a better airline.



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