With Saudi Arabia's push towards an open skies policy gaining impetus, an interesting side effect is the increase of interest by most of the Gulf’s major airlines to take a share of the proposed expansions and long overdue refurbishments of the country’s 27 now well used airports. In 2011, close to 55 million passengers passed through Saudi Arabia’s airports, an increase of 13.6 percent from 2010.
However, despite the kingdom being the largest country in the Gulf and most active economically, Saudi Arabia has one of the smallest airline networks in the region. Making things even worse is the fact that the only domestic airlines are both state owned - the national carrier Saudi Arabian Airlines, as well as a privately owned low-budget carrier under the name of the National Air Services. With a marked increase in internal flights taking place within his vast country, even with both the airlines working flat out, reports have it that they are finding it difficult to keep up with demand.
Saudi Arabia’s overly conservative approach to air travel might be finally drawing to a close according to recent reports, and if proposed reforms come to pass it will be good news for their neighbours in the United Arab Emirates, where Emirates airlines and Etihad Airways are champing at the bit to take a share of the traffic both domestically and internationally that the Saudis generate. Another country that are anxiously awaiting a chance to break into Saudi Arabia are Qatar, who have the facilities and expertise to take an increased share of the Gulf air travel through their s national carrier.
So far, reports say that there are no less than 14 airlines who have applied to licences to operate domestic and international flights in the country, with already, seven of them being short-listed. Most of the companies are interested in operating low-cost domestic flights, where business travel is reported to be on the increase.
The open skies plan is being welcomed by Saudi residents, worst affected by the limited air network in the country of more than 27 million.
Saudi Arabia has recently begun investing heavily in their aviation infrastructure taking in a number of multi-billion dollar projects to expand passenger traffic, with the Riyadh International Airport being the first in line.
Traffic through Riyadh, originally designed to handle nine million passengers a year, has already arrived at 15 million. Plans are also afoot to invest 27 billion riyal airport in Jeddah that will raise its capacity to 30 million passengers annually.
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