Delta to team with Saudi airline as kingdom invests billions in tourism

Kelly Yamanouchi, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Business News

Delta Air Lines has signed a partnership agreement with Riyadh Air, a Saudi Arabian airline startup that plans to start flying in 2025 as the Middle Eastern nation plans to invest hundreds of billions to diversify its economy and turn itself into a tourism hub.

Riyadh Air, a company created last year by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, signed the memorandum of understanding Tuesday for “strategic cooperation” with Atlanta-based Delta.

With the agreement, Delta plans to eventually launch nonstop flights between the United States and Riyadh.

“This partnership with Riyadh Air will further Delta’s mission of connecting the world and open an array of new choices, benefits and destinations for our customers traveling to and from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian in a written statement.

Delta in its announcement Tuesday said the new partnership with Riyadh Air comes as investments in Saudi Arabia are “transforming it into a popular and attractive destination for both leisure and business travelers.” Saudi Arabia is investing $800 billion in its tourism sector including developing luxury resorts on the Red Sea.

Also under development near Riyadh is a massive tourism, gaming and esports destination, Qiddiya, to include a planned Six Flags, a sprawling water park and Formula One racetrack.

Saudi Arabia is developing Riyadh Air as other Middle Eastern airline hubs have gained prominence, including Dubai and Qatar.

The U.S. State Department currently has a travel advisory for Saudi Arabia, saying: “Reconsider travel to Saudi Arabia due to the threat of missile and drone attacks. Exercise increased caution in Saudi Arabia due to terrorism, the risk of arrest based on social media activity, and importation of prohibited items.”

There are also significant restrictions in Saudi Arabia that affect tourists, including restrictions on alcohol, dress, criticism of Islam (including on social media), public practice of religions other than Islam, and mingling of unmarried men and women, according to the State Department.


Delta and Riyadh Air plan to strike interline and code-share marketing agreements for passengers to easily connect to other flights beyond Riyadh, subject to regulatory approvals. They also plan to explore a joint venture partnership with antitrust immunity, similar to Delta’s deals with Air France, KLM, Korean Air and other carriers.

More than a decade ago, Delta became a target of online criticism after announcing Saudi Arabian Airlines would join its SkyTeam global airline alliance. The criticism in 2011 came after reports of restrictions on travel to Saudi Arabia for Israelis and others including those “carrying any non-Islamic article of faith.“ Delta emphasized then that visa requirements for entry to any country were dictated by that nation’s government, and not the airlines.

Delta also said it would not code-share with Saudi Arabian Airlines, the flag carrier of Saudi Arabia now known as Saudia. Saudia has a hub in Jeddah and remains a member of the SkyTeam alliance. Delta has code-share agreements with other airlines that already fly to Saudi Arabia, including Air France and KLM.

Delta will be Riyadh Air’s exclusive airline partner in North America, and Riyadh Air will be Delta’s exclusive partner in Riyadh. The partnership agreement also involves loyalty programs and aviation services including maintenance, ground handling and training.

Riyadh Air CEO Tony Douglas said in a written statement that his airline and Delta “share common goals and pursue the highest standards in many areas including guest experience, loyalty, and sustainability, built upon great networks and strong connectivity.”

Bastian added that the two airlines will “have many opportunities to learn from each other and become better airlines for our mutual customers, our employees, our investors and our communities as we fly forward together.”


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