JFK to Dubai Without the Bling: Saudia’s Disappointing Business Class via Riyadh
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To The Point
If you’re looking for an alternative to Emirates, Etihad or Qatar for flights to the Gulf and beyond, Saudia is a Delta partner offering a growing network. Pros: A solid lie-flat, all-aisle-access business class product, for a relatively cheap price; great lounge in Riyadh. Cons: No alcohol, and haphazard service nowhere near international business class standards.
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Saudi Arabia’s flag carrier used to be a bit player on the international stage, but with a growing fleet and membership in the SkyTeam alliance along with heavy hitters like Delta and Air France-KLM, it’s an increasingly visible presence around the world — and a viable means of collecting and spending Delta’s SkyMiles.
When the TPG team was looking for ways to get to Dubai last November to cover the air show there, Saudia’s business class presented itself as an interesting alternative to an expensive nonstop from JFK on Emirates and to one-stop itineraries on European carriers. Saudia fares from premium seats were much cheaper and, combined with visa-free transit through Saudi Arabia for connections up to 12 hours, convinced us to try a flight to Dubai via Riyadh, Saudia’s second-largest hub after Jeddah.
Granted, Saudia is a dry airline. But aside from no Champagne, would business class on this SkyTeam partner prove to be equal to the service found on the alliance’s best biz cabins, such as Korean Air’s?
I paid the $2,332 fare for the JFK – RUH – DXB flight with my Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express, as I was working towards hitting $25,000 in annual spend on Delta co-branded cards in order to waive Delta’s Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) requirement to hit elite status (except for the top-tier Diamond level).With my Chase Sapphire Reserve card I would have earned 3x points on airfare, or 5x with a Platinum Card® from American Express.
From New York to Riyadh, flight SV22 would be operated by a Boeing 777-300ER, the workhorse of Saudia’s long-haul fleet, and SV560 from Riyadh to Dubai would be on a smaller 787-9, the stretched version of the Dreamliner.
I credited the flight to my SkyMiles account, earning 5,311 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs), $2,124 in Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) and 18,411 redeemable miles (7,081 base miles and 11,330 bonus miles for business class.) As of January 2018, SkyMiles accrual on Saudia business class is improved, with 100% MQMs instead of the 75% I got. The downside is you now only earn 20% MQDs, while I got the whole $2,000+ shebang, minus taxes. That’s a big factor to keep in mind if you are thinking of doing a mileage run for Delta status on Saudia.
The route we actually flew ended up being much longer than the 6,538 miles Delta says it takes. The geopolitics of aviation in the Middle East are complex, and the need for Saudi aircraft to avoid Israeli airspace, and also skirt — like everybody else — the Syrian conflict zone, had us overflying Egypt instead. But you earn miles based on the airline’s mileage tables, not on what your captain actually decides to fly.
New York to Riyadh: Check-in and Lounge
I cut it a bit close with physical check-in — no luck checking in with the Saudia app even though I just had cabin baggage — but the airline’s desks at JFK’s Terminal 1 were pretty much empty when I showed up just 95 minutes before takeoff. I lingered in the area for a bit after checking in to get something from one of my bags, and a TSA agent shooed me away with the visibly absurd reason that it was too crowded.
What was actually crowded instead was, as usual at JFK’s T1, the line for security. Saudia does not participate in TSA Pre-Check, so you have to take off your shoes and take laptops and tablets (and in my case, lots of photo gear) out of your bags. The line for premium class passengers was meaningless since it later merged into the main crowd.
I was hoping to use the Air France lounge, accessible to SkyTeam elite passengers and my favorite at T1 because of its better food options, but the front desk rebuffed me saying it was too full. (This lounge is known for turning away passengers from partner airlines at peak times.) My fallback was the Korean Air lounge, available to Priority Pass members as well as SkyTeam elites.
This is in fact what Saudia premium-class passengers are directed to use at JFK. At 3:30pm on a Friday, it was uncrowded — Korean Air flights leave JFK at midday and midnight. There’s nothing exceptional about the space, and food options are limited to fruit, pastries and instant noodles, but it beats a hard seat at the gate.
Boarding, Cabin and Seat
My boarding pass said boarding would begin at 4:00pm. I showed up at the gate at four on the dot, only to hear an announcement that it would begin at 4:20, even though our airplane had arrived from Riyadh five hours earlier. Boarding began at 4:09 anyway and I was the first on the plane, a 777 that bore the Saudi registration HZ-AK39 and wasn’t quite one year old.
Saudia flies its 777s in several different configurations. The one you’ll see on flights to the US and Canada, where the airline also serves Los Angeles (LAX), Toronto (YYZ) and Washington (IAD), features 12 enclosed first-class suites, 36 seats in business class and 242 in economy. My seat, 16L, was in the second row of nine, all arranged in a 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone layout. The sand-toned colors recalled the livery on the airline’s planes and the hues one associates with a desert country. A blanket and pillow were arranged on each seat.
290 seats on a 777-300ER is a spacious configuration, mainly thanks to a 3-3-3 layout in economy versus the 3-4-3 that’s now almost universal on 777s. That’s the coach configuration Saudia uses for the high-density version of the plane, which crams 413 people into the same fuselage.
My window seat was pretty private. In this configuration you’re not looking at anybody (nor is anybody looking at you) because of the angle of the seat. This wouldn’t have been an issue on this flight anyway; the biz cabin was more than half empty.
A large foldable table extended from under the monitor. The seat offered enough storage for small objects, but not for a tablet or laptop.
Seat adjustments were via an intuitive touchscreen by the right armrest. A footwell light controlled by the touchscreen was a very nice touch: No more fumbling for dropped objects in the dark.
The right-hand tables opened with push buttons to reveal two small storage areas. The one on the left housed the remote for the entertainment display and an international power outlet plus powered USB plug. The headphones provided turned out to be necessary — I almost always use my own Bose noise-canceling headset, but the Saudia system takes a weird three-prong plug and I didn’t have an adapter.
The recessed reading light was perfect to read a book in the dark with the seat back at a 45-degree angle.
By my right leg, there was a small cubby — too small for my shoes, but useful for small objects.
The sliding left armrest concealed another useful storage area. Still not large enough for a laptop, though.
I liked the seat, and I did after 12 hours in it, too. The flight attendants’ welcome on board was, however, cold and perfunctory. The towels they distributed were rough and barely lukewarm. No one offered to hang up my jacket, and I ended up putting it in the overhead bin. The only news publication in English available on board was the exceedingly dull Saudi Gazette, which bore not a trace of the turmoil that was shaking the Saudi kingdom. I wasn’t expecting to talk politics with the crew, sure — but from an airline whose inflight magazine is called “Ahlan Wa Sahlan,” a hearty Arabic expression of welcome, I would have liked a bit more warmth.
At 4:40, with passengers all settled in, we got a welcome drink consisting of a selection of juices.
A modern, sturdy Porsche Design amenity kit was handed out immediately after. It contained all the usuals: hand cream, face moisturizer and lip balm, all from Italian brand Acca Kappa; a toothbrush and toothpaste kit; a comb; lens wipe, and ear plugs.
Socks with a cute airplane motif were included in the kit, but no slippers.
Food and Beverage
As we got ready to push back from the gate, flight attendants took orders for dinner and breakfast, after distributing menus. My choice was Arabic mezze for the starter, followed by a grilled seafood medley for my entree and a fruit platter for dessert. The menu also featured a soup course, but no one asked which soup I wanted, and none was offered later. For breakfast, I chose fruit and a cheese omelette.
We were airborne at 5:25pm after a quiet but forceful takeoff roll, a reminder of the immense power of our 777’s twin General Electric engines, the most powerful in the history of aviation.
15 minutes after takeoff we got an Arabic coffee, smooth and a little oily, in an elegant thimble of a cup, and a date, served on a toothpick. Coffee was poured at the seat the traditional way, with a long drop into the cup. When the offer of a second cup, and a second date, came, I gladly said yes. Minor problem: Without a saucer, if you eat the date before drinking your coffee you’re left either awkwardly holding your toothpick in your hand or putting it directly on the table.
Dinner was served over Canada, one hour after takeoff. The mezze — hummus, a stuffed pepper and a stuffed grape leaf — were the stars of the meal. Presentation wasn’t world-class, but I liked the no-frills elegance of the crockery.
My entree arrived 10 minutes after the appetizer, a serviceable main course that didn’t impress me either way. Throughout the meal I would be offered only water, and not even sparkling.
About a half hour later my tray was removed, again in a cold, unsmiling manner. No one among the crew was outright unpleasant, but no one communicated a sense that they were especially happy to be there, and some basic duties went unfulfilled: The headphones’ wrapper and toothpicks from the coffee and dates, for example, sat uncollected by my window for hours, in full view of passing flight attendants.
With the dessert cart and coffee, I also finally got my sparkling water, after asking for it and waiting for almost 10 minutes.
On my way to the bathroom later I went through the galley, where I found both flight attendants serving our cabin sitting and just sort of staring into space. They didn’t seem to notice that I was taking that cellophane wrapper with me to throw it out myself. The bathroom was smaller than some other business class lavatories on the 777-300ER, and a sadly wilting carnation didn’t help enliven the atmosphere. Hand sanitizer, moisturizer and eau de toilette from Milan-based Culti were available.
With six hours to go — not feeling like I wanted the midflight snack service (not that anyone had offered it, either) — I put the seat in bed mode to sleep. There was no bedding, but the blanket was cozy and long enough for my 6’2” frame. The pillow was way too soft for my taste, but I snagged an extra from a neighboring empty seat and managed a couple hours of good sleep on two stacked pillows. Despite individual air vents, the cabin was still very warm compared to most US airlines. I liked it, but Americans used to far colder plane cabins might have objected.
I woke up to a bit of turbulence and cabin lights turned up to a brighter, if not quite all the way bright, setting. The flight attendants appeared sporadically and did not offer refreshments unless called. Over Egypt, just after crossing the Nile, juices were served followed by breakfast, with silverware uncomfortably cold to the touch. The omelette nailed the consistency, less hard than the average pre-cooked airplane eggs, but not the taste: It was as bland as the potatoes and stewed tomato that accompanied it, the latter partially rescued by the freshness of the mint. A mini-plate of brie and cheddar cheeses and walnuts should not have been unpleasantly cold, and coffee or tea ought to have been offered with breakfast, instead of after; my cup sat forlornly empty until I had finished eating. That said, a chocolate croissant offered from a tray was a welcome sweet addition.
The large swiveling screen of the in-flight entertainment system could be controlled by touch or, when reclining, by wired remote. As customary on airlines from Muslim-majority countries, the map display featured the qibla, which indicates the direction of Mecca for prayer. Saudia’s long-haul jets also have prayer spaces at the back of coach class.
The system featured a truly vast selection of religious-themed video and audio content, from sermons by several different Muslim preachers to many videos on the proper behavior to observe during pilgrimage to Mecca. The latter were all mute and without subtitles, clearly aimed at the millions of Muslims who visit the holy city every year, many of whom speak neither Arabic nor English.
The music selection was equally large, both Arabic and Western. However, the sound quality of the three-prong headphones made me long for my Boses. While alright for movie audio, they sounded muddy when playing an otherwise good selection of blues and rock music — including the latest solo record from the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, probably the most incongruous artist to appear on an airline that bans alcohol. I ended up watching a decidedly un-edifying war movie, The Dirty Dozen, one of several interesting Hollywood classics on the IFE.
I used up quickly the 20 minutes of free, and fast enough, Internet access. With a 10-megabyte limit on the free option I was limited to email and messages without images, but paid options were available.
As we approached King Khalid International Airport over a starkly lit desert landscape giving way to suburbs, flight attendants came around with hot towels — actually hot this time — and a tray of candy. 15 minutes from touchdown, I finally heard the first, and last, announcement from the flight deck: “Cabin crew, prepare for landing.” I knew the captain’s and first officer’s names only because the purser had mentioned them in a previous announcement, otherwise I would have been totally in the dark as to who was flying us halfway around the world.
As we rolled to our gate, I spotted a taxiway sign marked ROYAL. I later found out, checking the airport’s navigation charts, that it leads to a special area for the private planes of the al-Saud royal family and their guests. You know you’ve landed in Saudi, I said to myself, when there’s a special taxiway for the king.
I deplaned with a burning question left unanswered: What’s the accepted way of pronouncing the airline’s name? When using English over the intercom, the crew said “Sah-oo-DEE-yah,” the proper Arabic pronunciation, but some of the onboard videos featured the pronunciation more common in the West with the accent on the first syllable.
Riyadh to Dubai: Lounge
After going through a quick security screening, I spent the next few hours waiting for my Dubai connection in the al-Fursan lounge, which shares a name with Saudia’s frequent flyer program — “The Knights,” no less. Accessible to all SkyTeam Elite Plus flyers, it’s perched above the gates, in a prime spot for plane-watching. The many jets bearing the colors of airlines like Shaheen, Flynas and Air Arabia attested to the proliferation of low-cost carriers in the Middle East.
Several iMacs were available for the guests, in an airy, modern environment.
Between the iMacs, the Eames lounge chairs overlooking the apron, the Arabic coffee and dates and lots of space, the al-Fursan lounge proved to be a very pleasant place.
Warm food and cold beverages were plentiful. Obviously, still no alcohol — and if you’re thinking of skirting the Saudia ban on booze by discreetly tucking a small flask in your carryon, beware: Importing alcohol into the kingdom is forbidden.
While I perused the buffet trying to decide between chicken, mutton, fish, cold appetizers or a few more dates, the call to prayer sounded from loudspeakers all over the airport. Later, I left for my gate sated and as well-rested as one could reasonably expect to be.
Boarding, Cabin and Seat
At the gate, a quick walk from the lounge, I found the first 787 delivered to Saudia, tail code HZ-ARA, just over 18 months old and configured with 24 biz seats and 274 in coach.
As I waited, a Saudia 777-300ER like the one that had just carried me here appeared in full view, showing off its impressive 242-foot length. It still sported the airline’s previous brand name, Saudi Arabian.Boarding began without any announcements. At one point, as if obeying some signal, people just randomly went up to the podium and got scanned in. The flight wasn’t crowded, or the potential for chaos would have been high. Inside, I found business class to be half empty despite the seat map online showing it full the day before, just like on my previous flight. The 787’s biz cabin in Saudia’s fleet features the same configuration as the 777-300ER I had just flown, a 1-2-1 reverse herringbone with pretty much the same lie-flat seat. The only visible difference is a three-point seat belt. All the windows had been darkened against the desert sun, using the unique electronic window-dimming function of the 787, which can be controlled from a central switch as well as individually.
On my seat, 3L, there was no blanket, pillow or amenity kit, since our flight would be a short hop. The flight attendants immediately showed themselves to be a nicer bunch than my previous crew, taking my jacket to hang it up and then promptly coming around with lemonade and a choice of either dates or a smoothie, as the rest of the plane completed boarding.
Shortly after pushing back from the gate, right after the Muslim traveler’s prayer had been played over the PA system, we stopped taxiing and the captain announced that we would have to go back to the gate for a “technical problem.” We never actually made it back to the gate, but sat on the tarmac for an hour while the issue got fixed. We were never told what had happened, and flight attendants did not come around with refreshments while we waited. In any event, the travelers’ prayer was played again, and we left without further ado. With enough legroom and elbow room to stretch all I wanted, plenty to watch on the IFE and no appointments until the next day, I wasn’t annoyed by the snafu at all.
Lightly loaded with passengers and fuel, our 787 climbed quickly to 39,000 feet and, pushed by a strong tailwind, reached 675 mph over the ground. Because of another geopolitical twist, we dog-legged over the Gulf to avoid Qatar, since the two nations are currently not on speaking terms and are blocking each other’s flights from their airspaces. Still, that tailwind helped us make it in 79 minutes, less than the 95-minute average calculated by Flightradar24 for this segment.
Food and Beverages
Arabic coffee and another helping of dates appeared as soon as we reached cruising altitude. Half an hour into the flight, dinner service began via trolley, with no menu. Asked if I wanted steak or chicken, I chose chicken. Minutes later, my tray appeared — with a menu on it. It didn’t say anything that I didn’t know already, but it was another weird service glitch.
The tray came with a mezze appetizer slightly different from the one on my previous flight: two grape leaves, a mildly hot paste I took to be harissa, and one more red, mildly hot paste. The chicken, under a lot of long-grain rice, was nothing special, and I ignored dessert. The mezze should have been warmer, but to their credit our flight attendants worked feverishly to cram a full dinner service on a 90-minute flight. Passengers were still working on their trays during the descent.
To drink, we were offered only water, tea or coffee. I didn’t try the Wi-Fi. We landed uneventfully in Dubai, and I headed to my hotel — where I finally had a drink, 20 hours after leaving home in New York.
Saudia’s long-haul business class offers a pretty solid hard product aboard a very modern fleet — a product that would shine in the hands of an airline with a more established service tradition, which Saudia will quite possibly be one day. Until then, lower your expectations.
All photos by the author.
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