The chief executives of Air India and Riyadh Air have underlined their determination to take international long-haul traffic from big overseas hubs.

Speaking at the Aviation Festival Asia event in Singapore, Air India’s Campbell Wilson and Riyadh Air’s Tony Douglas point out that a substantial amount of international traffic from India and Saudi Arabia flows through big hubs overseas.

Aviation Festival Asia

Tony Douglas (second from left) and Campbell Wilson (centre) during a panel discussion at Aviation Festival Asia. Both executives see an opportunity to snatch international traffic from overseas hubs

Wilson observes that for the Air India group’s international business to be successful, it is not necessary to grow the market significantly.

“There is a huge volume of traffic to and from India but it’s not going non-stop,” says Wilson. “We only need to shift a couple of percentage points of that and we’re in a very good position.”

He adds that for the time being “the cream” of India’s international traffic flows through overseas hubs, but that as Air India continues to improve its value proposition, it hopes to secure more traffic for its extensive non-stop, long-haul network.

Indian officials have long bemoaned the “leakage” of international traffic to well-run hubs such as Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai, and Singapore – all of which are home to large and efficient international carriers.

On the pending merger of Air India and Vistara, Wilson says that Singapore has yet to approve the transaction, but that this is expected “reasonably soon.” The merger also requires legal approval in India.

Wilson is overseeing the restructuring of the Tata Group’s airline holdings. This will see Air India merged with Vistara, and Air India Express merged with AIX Connect, formerly AirAsia India. The merger had been expected to be completed by March 2024.

Riyadh Air’s Douglas, for his part, says that Saudi Arabia is eager to invite travelers, but for the time being visiting the country generally requires transiting through one of the big Persian Gulf hubs. After its launch – pegged in 2025 – Riyadh Air will try to address this issue.

“How do you get to [Saudi Arabia]?” asks Douglas. “And the answer is at the moment, regrettably, it’s not as easy as it should be. So the establishment of the new national carrier is the solution for that.”

In a subsequent panel discussion, Douglas observed that there is significant demand for travel between China and Saudi Arabia, but that this also goes through Persian Gulf hubs. He describes China’s as “very much at the at the top of the list of priorities.”

Douglas recounts a trip he and colleagues took to four major Chinese cities in 2023. Of the four cities, not one had a direct connection to Saudi Arabia.

Although Air India is a legacy carrier with decades of history and Riyadh Air is a startup, both have amassed large orderbooks for widebody jets.

Cirium fleets data indicates that Air India has orders for 64 widebodies, a mix of Airbus and Boeing types, while Riyadh Air has orders for 39 787-9s.