SkyTeam has announced that Saudi Arabian Airlines will join the alliance in 2012. While certainly a network asset for the alliance in a region in which it is currently unrepresented, the move also shows the complexity of creating a global network as the number of available candidates shrinks.
Much like the announcement that airberlin will join oneworld, it is easier to see the need than the fit. Star has had a liberal and inclusive membership policy practically from its inception, even if that has meant that partners are also competitive rivals. oneworld and SkyTeam emerged later and began with different philosophies and structural support. This has left both with coverage gaps that continue to be problematic.
Saudi Arabian is a carrier established with US assistance immediately after World War II. For part of its history it was mentored by TWA and has grown as the influence of Saudi Arabia has been enhanced by its oil wealth. It has a large fleet that extends the carrier’s network across much of the globe.
However, its service is restricted by the presence of three hub cities, Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, which means that frequencies are spotty. As an example, from Jeddah the carrier flies to New York and Washington, but only twice weekly to each. As a result, this means that connections may be difficult to build.
This reality is made even more complex by the fact that the airline is fully owned by the government and entry and transit are both complicated by rather tight and expensive visa requirements. While no visa is needed for a 72-hour transit, during which the passenger must remain in the airport, the nation does not have a good reputation for its policies towards women and other cultural groups. This stance considerably complicates the use of its hubs as transit points.
Furthermore, the absence of alcohol and other state-imposed restrictions may reduce its appeal for many travellers from the West. And the restrictions will make it a problematic choice for those wishing to connect to India and South Asia.
On the plus side, because of its resources the nation is a prime destination for many in the energy sector and the strict onboard policies will not be problematic for many residents of the Middle East.
What is clear is that the decision to include SV is due, at least in part, to the limited number of carriers available for membership in the region. The decision indicates both the broadening of alliances to include other regions and populations as well as the difficulty in maintaining a “standard” product across the members.
The alliance is correct in stating that “adding Saudi Arabian Airlines will definitely complement our network offer to our customers” but the long-term effect may be far more muted.