BMI's inaugural flight from London Heathrow to Jeddah last Thursday matched the customer profile the route is likely to attract in future. British Muslims travelling as pilgrims to the holy cities of
BMI has already demonstrated which part of the market it expects will be the most lucrative, upping its business class capacity from 24 to 42 seats on its new route, as it has already done on the
Chief executive Nigel Turner describes BMI's decision to launch the service to Jeddah following BA's withdrawal of the service last year as a "no-brainer." The Middle East looks set to become an important part of the company's long-haul expansion strategy.
With GDP growth of 6.5% in 2005, and forecasts of even stronger growth this year, the Kingdom's status as a business destination seems assured.
With the news that BMI is studying a third destination in Saudi Arabia - Damman - it is clear that BMI regards the Kingdom as a key part of its strategy and is not put off by the complicated market it represents. Turner says the Jeddah route is just a "toe in the water," and adds that this service could increase in frequency to a daily service if demand is sufficient.
But the Saudi officials we met during our three day visit to Jeddah are adamant that there will increasingly be a third category of passengers on this three-times-a-week flight: tourists.
Some of the obstacles in the way of this goal are melting away: for example visa applications - which have proved problematic in the past, even for BMI staff - should now be easier and quicker than they have been.
And there's no doubt that Jeddah is keen to set itself up as a tourist destination. There's plenty to see and do and the Saudis we met were friendly, welcoming and keen to share their culture and customs with us and answer our endless stream of questions.
On the other side of the coin, while Jeddah is seen as
As well as the practicalities, which we all agreed were relatively easy to overcome, the Kingdom suffers from a negative perception by foreigners on many counts. BMI chief executive Nigel Turner admits that a "hearts and minds campaign", not to mention the promise of excellent accommodation and facilities were necessary to convince his crews that the destination was not as problematic as perceived.
Whether Jeddah's tourist industry will get a boost from the arrival of BMI remains to be seen, but whatever the passenger profile, one thing is certain: the return of a UK-based carrier with a direct flight from