SV1069 RUH-JED Y B777-200 seat 45D

…skipping a dull week in Riyadh and heading straight to the next destination…

I’d wanted to try out Nas or Sama for this flight, but neither had conveniently timed flights, while Saudia’s departures are near-hourly and reasonably priced at SR 280 (~US$75). I’d already booked my ticket before the Delhi detour, but changing the departure with a call to SV’s Singapore office was quick, effortless and free, and I could confirm that the date was changed online. Props to SV.

Riyadh’s domestic terminal is creepily similar to the international terminals — no surprise, really, as they’re all cast from precisely the same mold, down to way you have to X-ray all bags (carryon and checked) before check-in and then walk back out through the metal detector before going through security again into airside.  Being the beginning of the Saudi weekend, Wednesday evenings at the airport are unsurprisingly busy with fairly long lines at the Saudia desks, but I’d budgeted for this and check-in itself was unproblematic. The airport’s flight info monitors are rather annoying though, as not only do they switch back and forth between Arabic and English (which is understandable), but they spend half their time showing pretty pictures of the airport…

The airside of the domestic terminal looks identical to the int’l one as well, but one lady was sufficiently impressed by the cascading fountain in the center to lift her veil to take a better look! The domestic terminal is noticeably more lively than the international one, with three restaurants/cafes doing a brisk business and a gift shop/bookstore that, much to my surprise, even stocked the latest Economist. I opted for the Saudi Gazette at a sixteenth of the price, picked up a green salad and bottle of water from the Sport Cafe and leeched off the Saudia Al-Fursan Lounge’s unsecured wifi. Quite a few Umrah pilgrims also heading to Jeddah were already in ihram: consisting basically of two towels wrapped around your body, it looks rather like a cross between a terrycloth bathrobe and a shoulder-baring Roman toga, and the terminal’s bathrooms were full of pilgrims taking care of their ablutions before donning it.

As on my previous DXB-RUH-DXB sectors, the plane today was again a B777, again looking a little worse for the wear and in the odd 2-5-2 configuration. Getting everyone settled down took a while though: for example, in my row, seats F/G/H were taken up by the three Saudi wives, with seat F objecting to having a young Saudi guy sit next to her in E, so the guy was swapped with an Indian lady who didn’t object to my male presence and satisfied Ms. F’s sense of decorum. Now repeat this all over a plane that appeared full to the last seat, and I was surprised that we in the end managed to take off more or less on time.

The plane had the same IFE as on my previous DXB-RUH flights of equal length, but this time it wasn’t even switched on. As flight time was about 1.5 hours, there was enough time to serve a quick meal, which turned out to be precisely the same chicken-and-rice mandi as last time, with a small salad and piece of cake, but minus the bun or drink service other than tea/coffee. About half an hour before arrival, the same prerecorded voice that informed us of seatbelt signs and pre-flight supplications announced in remarkably crisp British English: “We have now entered miqah. At this point, pilgrims should don ihram and recite talbiyah.” Turns out the plane from RUH actually flies over the sacred territory around Mecca — and that’s the closest I’ll ever get to it. (I should have taken a window seat.)

Neatest sight while deplaning: a lady tapping out a text message on her phone under her veil, lighting it up from underneath.

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XY 406 JED-RUH Y A320 seat 15E

King Abdulaziz Int’l Airport is a mess. Turns out check-in desks are layered two deep when you enter the domestic side, and I’d plunged in towards the Saudia desks and wandered around for a while, looking for Nas… but then I spotted competitor Sama and guessed (correctly) that Nas would be near them, behind the sign saying “International departures”.

You know you’re flying off the beaten path when your very appearance at the check-in desk appears to make the day of the young Pakistani guy running… not the counter, but the old-fashion analog scale next to it, used to weigh bags. (Mine clocked-in at 17 kg, and Weighing Machine Guy was simply delighted to report that it would be free.) This ticket, too, had been booked prior to my Delhi detour, and while the departure date was easily changed by e-mail (!) to Nas customer service, I had to pay SR 50 extra at check-in, and sorting this out took a few minutes. This also meant that my original fare of SR 269, 11 riyals cheaper than the Saudia fare, turned out SR 39 more expensive than the legacy carrier with better schedules, flexible tickets, meals and all. Oh well…

Once through security, I was presented with what looked like a badly maintained bus terminal, which is in fact pretty much what it is: rows of hard plastic seats and half a dozen tightly packed gates for the buses waiting on the other side, without a single jetway. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and flies hopped happily on tables, so I was glad I’d already eaten and thus didn’t have to resort to the solitary eatery on offer. But I scrounged a chunk of table, snarfed wifi from the Al-Fursan lounge again (thanks Saudia!) and passed an hour without too much pain.

Boarding was a little confusing, as there’s no centralized departures board of any kind, you just need to listen to the announcements or try to scan the LED scrollers above each gate, all carefully positioned like the rocks in a Zen garden so that no matter where you sit, you can see only see half of them at a time. But shortly after scheduled boarding time somebody carried over a Nas poster, a mob formed next to it, and boarding started. Yay! As JED has no jetways, at least on the domestic side, we were bussed out to the plane and clambered up the stairs.

The all-female flight crew (Moroccan, I hear) was rather fetchingly decked out in a wispy half-veil a-la Emirates/Etihad, white blouse and green skirt that seemed drop-dead sexy after a week of abayas: you could actually make out the vague outline of a bust when they stretched their arms upward to put in the bags! <insert sound of bug-eyed Wahhabis having heart attacks>

The plane was considerably newer and shinier than Saudia’s workhorses, but based on the “vueling” stickers on the catering boxes it had had at least one previous owner. Seat pitch was a little tight but tolerable, helped by having a pocketless plastic seatback with a one-inch indentation for your legs.

The flight was packed full, and despite checking in pretty early I was put into a middle seat — haven’t been in one of these for a while. The flight experience was just like flying one of Europe’s better LCCs: chirpy announcements (no pre-flight prayers!), trolley service for drinks and snacks (SR2-5 for drinks, SR8 for a sandwich, so not entirely unreasonable), zero entertainment. The Saudi guy next to me bought me tea without saying a word or even smiling, but I had to reject his somewhat excessive hospitality as caffeine in the evenings keeps me awake at night.

In due course we descended and rolled straight up to a jetway. RUH seemed like an old friend now, so wonderfully quite, large and clean after JED. My suitcase came out after a tolerable wait, and my first Saudi LCC experience was over. All in all, no complaints, I’d definitely fly them again if the price and time are right.