TWO low-cost, privately-owned airlines started flying in Saudi Arabia in April, Nas Air and Sama, bringing long needed options and competition to the state-owned Saudi Arabian Airlines which many residents of the Kingdom have grown to dislike because of its sloppy service and bloated workforce.
I had the chance to try Sama on April 1 when I flew to Riyadh to do some reporting. As other low-cost airlines, I booked my flights on the website of Sama, which is extremely clear and easy to use. You just plug in the dates you want to fly and the site brings up the whole week in which your traveling and shows how much each one-way fare will cost according to the day you travel. Flying on a weekend logically costs more, as does booking your flight closer to your departure date.
I booked a roundtrip for SR398 ($106), which would have cost me SR580 ($155) on Saudia, so I saved $49. Not bad for a country where our choices just last year were Saudia, Saudia and Saudia again when it came to domestic flights. Both Sama and Nas Air regularly run promotions where seats go for as little as SR99 ($27) each way between Jeddah and Riyadh.
Sama, which means “sky” in Arabic, is owned by Prince Bandar bin Khalid al Faisal and a group of Saudi companies, namely Olayan Financial Co., Xenel Industries Ltd, Saudi Industrial Services Co., Sara Development Company Ltd, and Modern Investment Company for Trade and Industries.
It has a fleet of six Boeing 737s done in tasteful shades of lilac, with three more on the way according to the chatty Indian flight attendant whom I spoke to on my flight back from Riyadh.
The airline is being run by Andrew Cowen, the managing director and founder of Mango Aviation Partners Ltd., and Mark Breen, chief operations officer, who was a former advisor to Air Asia. Other top officials have experience working at British Airways and the hyper-successful low-budget UK airline easyJet.
Their website is extremely friendly in terms of payment options. You can pay by credit card or you can make the reservation and pay for it at their office. The site says that one can pay through Samba bank ATMs, but when I tried that the ATM kept saying it didn’t recognize the payee code, so I had to send the money to the Sama office in the Movenpick Hotel with my driver.
Check-in at the South Terminal of King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah went smoothly, though I did have to stand in line for 30 minutes while Saudia staff (Sama has a contract with them for ground services) checked everyone in semi-manually. (Automated self-check-in machines that issue you a boarding pass and allow you to pick your seat would make a big difference in speeding and easing check-in.) I got a good seat in the emergency exit row, which gave me much needed extra leg room for my long legs, but just barely.
The seats were covered in brand new lilac leather, but the leg room was very limited. Coming back I had to sit sideways the entire way to fit my legs in, and luckily the plane was not full so I had two empty seats next to me. Onboard, to save us money on the airfares, Sama does not serve complimentary food and beverages. Instead you have to buy anything you want to eat/drink. I bought a cheese sandwich for SR8 and a large cup of freshly brewed coffee for SR5. The sandwich was mediocre as the bread sucked and the cheese was a bit too dry. The coffee was excellent though.
We left Jeddah around ten minutes behind schedule, but made it up enroute and actually landed a few minutes early. I was not so fortunate coming back the next day. The incoming flight from Dammam was delayed several hours, so when I reached the check-in counter in Riyadh at around 3 p.m. for my scheduled 6:40 p.m. flight I had to wait a whole hour until they started checking us in.
Having Saudia employees who looked bored and irritated checking us in did nothing for the image of Sama, unlike the Nas Air check-in personnel who wore Nehru-collared jackets and looked way cooler than our check-in guys.
The other problem with Sama (and Nas Air too) is that they are both two tiny upstart airlines that are trying to battle the behemoth called Saudia. While Sama has only three flights a day in each direction between Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudia has a flight practically every hour and a huge fleet of over 100 aircraft. Any tiny delay, and neither Sama nor Nas Air have spare aircraft to swing into action when needed.
But both upstart airlines are trying to fight Saudia on price and professionalism, and I dare say they are succeeding, despite the occasional lapses they suffer from.
One such lapse was my return flight to Jeddah which was so delayed that it didn’t even show up on the flight monitors in the departure area. As I waited at a coffee shop airside for a Sama rep to come by so that I could ask what happened to the 6:40 p.m. flight, I decided to call Sama’s reservation hotline and ask them about the delayed flight. A woman informed me that she didn’t know anything about the delayed flight and that I should keep looking at the flight monitors. Not very helpful, especially since Sama had no one in the departure area to tell us what was happening. I finally sat down near the gate for a later Sama flight to Jeddah in the hopes that someone from the airline would eventually appear.
Luckily for me I managed to hear a Saudia ground staff guy yelling for Sama passengers to Jeddah through my iPod earphones and I jumped up and followed him to the gate that he was returning to. Bingo, it was my delayed return flight to Jeddah, boarding 40 minutes behind schedule, which was still better than waiting for the next flight at 8 p.m.
“We are headed for the beautiful, beautiful city of Jeddah on the Red Sea!” said the pilot in accented English as I settled into my seat at the back of aircraft. He sounded happy to be leaving Riyadh!
Something about the way the pilot had said that made me suspect that he may be Brazilian, and bingo again, I was right. The friendly flight attendant confirmed that he was from the land of Cariocas and samba.
“Only a Brazilian talks like that,” I said, chuckling at the typical Brazilian hyperbole that makes Brazilians some of the most charming people on Earth.
All in all I was impressed by the professionalism of Sama pilots and flight attendants. I just wish the same could be said for their check-in staff. Unfortunately, it can’t.