Despite five years of official disfavor for the business aviation sector, operators are moving forward in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s just very exciting times in Saudi Arabia because we’re seeing a big push in expansion for general aviation, for private business aviation in the kingdom,” Yosef Hafiz, vice president of commercial sales and marketing at Riyadh-based NasJet, told AIN, in a nod to the role of the country's General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA).
“GACA is listening. GACA actually hosted general aviation operators at their headquarters and said, ‘Hey guys, what do you need us to do to make your life easier? What do you need us to improve upon?’ They’re listening. You can see that changes are happening within, and we can feel it. We’re excited about it, and we’re hoping that these changes take place quickly because to meet Vision 2030, you have to have those changes take place. You have to have them engage. So let’s see.”
However, he conceded that pressure on business aircraft operators to keep their heads down after the Ritz Carlton detentions in November 2017 had yet to fully ease. “This is a very fluid market, and it almost feels like there's a very big push for people to own and purchase aircraft,” he said. “However, what we’re seeing is that people still don’t want to be on the radar screen. They don’t want to be visible. They’re just a little, I don’t want to say fearsome, but more cautious in purchasing a product that suits them.”
NasJet’s fleet remains at around the 18-aircraft mark. “There are newcomers into the market,” he said. “We’re not seeing the industry as Boeing Business Jets would love to see it. In the past, Boeing used to have 30 or 35 aircraft based here in Saudi Arabia, and they still feel like there’s a big demand for BBJs. Airbus ACJs would be the same.”
As evidence of a trend to smaller aircraft, NasJet is in the process of adding a Pilatus PC-24 to its fleet. “We’re the very first aircraft management company in the kingdom to add the PC-24 under an operator specification,” he said. “It’s going to go under private category. It’s owned by a private individual, and it’s the very first Aruba-registered aircraft to be added under a private category office in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a very light, small business jet, and it’s perfect for his needs. He flies domestically, and he takes it all the way to London and back; he doesn’t mind stopping one or two times on his way over. We’re seeing the new generation come forward now and new people interested in chartering. Charter demand has increased exponentially. There are not enough aircraft in the market to meet that demand.”
In explaining the progress of the Saudi market, Hafiz returned to a theme he has explored before: aircraft operations licensing in the kingdom. In 2018, two options for Saudi owners were introduced: either to join a company that has an operator certificate (OC) under private category for personal use but not for hire under GACA Part 125, or adding an aircraft onto an air operator certificate (AOC), a commercial certificate under GACA Part 121 special unscheduled operations.
“Those are the two choices,” he said. “It’s either A or B. There’s no C or D; there’s nothing else. That’s it. We have both. We have the OC and the AOC. If you want to really sugar things up, it’s good to have a GACA Part 145 as well, an MRO repair station approval. Then you can piggyback off of that and serve your clients by working on the aircraft and generating additional revenue.”
He said operators were happy about the move, with GACA controlling the environment better and adopting new regulations eliminating or at least reducing grey—meaning illegal—charter.
“Obviously, operational control falls on the operator rather than the owner of the aircraft,” he said. “It’s very interesting to see that the changes are bearing fruit. They’re forcing new aircraft to be based in Saudi Arabia. How do they consider it to be so based? It’s in and out maybe more than seven times a year. It’s sitting here for more than three days at a time. That’s considered based in Saudi Arabia.”
Hafiz said one area where business aviation was progressing was in the provision of new dedicated airports. A new commercial airport is to be built at Neom Bay, freeing up the existing facility for business aviation. Also, a special-purpose business aviation airport will be built at Amaala, another major Red Sea coast project.
“They have another one, a military airport, in Mecca, which is used primarily for high-end royal family members to land in—not for the general public. [GACA are] thinking about converting that over to a business or general aviation airport,” he said. “There may be another one in Riyadh somewhere.”
With just Saudia Private Aviation (SPA) and Jet Aviation designated as FBO operators in Saudi Arabia today, Hafiz said GACA’s Vision 2030 called for the addition of new blood. “They’re looking for private investors to come into the kingdom—people and FBOs with experience and know-how. It will be a joint venture, probably with private investors, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), and airport operator Matarat Holding. Matarat would give the FBO the land; GACA would award the license to operate,” he said.