Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: ZS754 DMM-RUH Y 737 seat 17F

Dammam‘s King Fahd Int’l is no less than the largest in the world by land area and the terminal itself is scaled to fit, with arrivals, departures and check-in sprawled across four levels and gates numbered from 10 to 125 — perhaps somewhat excessive for an airport that serves under 3 million pax in a typical year. Opened only in 1999, it already looks rather old-fashioned and virtually identical to RUH, which dates back to 1983. We’d arrived a good two hours before flight time, and at the Sama desk we received sequence numbers 001 and 002, our window seats ticked off by pen on a sheet of paper with an airplane diagram.

Our safari chicken consumed (rather tasty!) and planes spotted (EgyptAir plus Saudia, Saudia, Saudia, Saudia and more Saudia), we crossed through security (shoes bad, water bottle no problem) in search of the al-Fursan lounge’s wifi. Alas, unlike RUH and JED they didn’t have one here, so I had to content myself with editing offline. Only after sitting for half an hour did I realize what was so eerie: the airport was incredibly quiet. No crowds of rushing people, no crying babies, no trolleys, no announcements, just silence halfway between a tomb and a library.

Eventually, though, the area near the gate started to fill up and not one but two Sama planes rolled up, and boarding started precisely on time.

We weren’t supposed to be on this plane in the first place: Trsqr had booked us on Saudia, but that reservation fell through for unclear reasons, and he managed to snag some cheap last-minute tickets on Saudi LCC Sama instead. The downside was that the flight time was a good three hours earlier, but on the upside, this now completed both my trinities of all major Saudi airlines (Saudia, Nas and now Sama) and all major Saudi airports (RUH, JED and now DMM); now I just need to figure out a way to fly on Al-Khayala.

My first impression on boarding the aircraft was quite positive: the seats looked new and spiffy, in blue/gray leather with embossed “Sama” logos in Arabic, and surprisingly decent seat pitch, a little better than Nas (trip report). On closer inspection, though, it’s clear that the aircraft wasn’t new (yellowed panels here and there, old-fashioned warning lights, etc), it’s just that the seats have been thoroughly refurbished. The plane was almost full, and the only empty seats in sight were those next to Trsqr and myself. Coincidence or conspiracy?

Sama’s crew had both Filipino and Arabic members, but the uniform was even more conservative than Saudia’s: the women wore a dark blue scarf wrapped around the entire head, revealing only the face, a featureless dark blue coat with a pink shirt underneath, and — the only un-Islamic touch — tight dark blue pants. Reasonably stylish, yes, but attractive, hardly.

The safety demo was run through at warp speed in both Arabic and memorized-by-rote English of the variety that would be indecipherable if you hadn’t already heard it a million times. Flight time was announced with admirable precision as 42 minutes, then stretched out to 45 minutes after ATC kept us waiting for a bit. Once we pushed back, we headed straight to the runway, and the captain got a running start by revving up the engines while still in the turn, straightening out the plane as we picked up speed and took off.

As we took off I spotted one of the more eerie sights I’d seen in Saudi: a series of abandoned farms in the middle of the desert, with dried-out circles where the irrigation sprinklers once rotated and both roads and buildings already half-swallowed by dunes. Just a tiny reminder of how artificial virtually everything in Saudi actually is…

As promised, it was a short flight and the crew didn’t even bother running the drinks cart, instead just walking down the aisle themselves and filling the few orders. Before long, we started our descent, complete with the sequence of tight turns that seems to characterize any arrival at RUH, and touched down smoothly. Back in the Dead Center of the Kingdom…

Bonus: Trsqr’s review of the same flight on FlyerTalk!

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EY 316 RUH-AUH Y B777-300 seat 26D

A brutal flight time, as departing from RUH at 5 AM means getting up at 3 AM. Check-in and immigration were uneventful, although I was disappointed (but not very surprised) that the immigration guy couldn’t tell me when my visa expires. Why, you ask? Because Saudi visas don’t state this date: instead, they just have the date of issue and the number of months it’s valid. The catches are that 1) these are Islamic (lunar) months of 28 days, not Western months; 2) business (non-working) visas appear to have a restriction on how many days within that period they’ve valid; and 3) it depends on the visa type if the days start counting from date of first issue or date of first arrival. Gah.

Same plane as last time, but much lower load, maybe 20% in economy. I watched through that creepy safety video again (I think the dead white eyes of the characters are to blame), devoured the sandwich and juice tossed to us after takeoff, and attempted to sleep.

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.

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.

EY 315 AUH-RUH Y B777-300W seat 19C

Again a short hop and an almost unnecessarily luxurious plane, but while similar to the A346 in appearance, the seat pitch was an inch or two more generous. This was a relief: I’ll be flying back to SIN in one of these (or at least am scheduled to), and that inch will make all the difference. Today the usual complement of Filipinas was joined by the lovely Kyeong-Soo from Korea, who pacified us with a tasty chicken or veg sandwich and a small bottle of juice before leaving us to giggle at the inane antics of Juste pour rire, Montreal’s ripoff of Candid Camera that seems to have a remarkable hold on transport operators the world around, ranging from business class on Garuda Indonesia to the buses of SBS Transit in Singapore.  The plane was equipped with the same IFE system as the A346; it was just turned off, and no headphones were passed out.

My stomach was still bubbling discontentedly, and it was approaching 6 AM Singapore time, so I did my best to zonk out — not entirely successfully, but soon enough the 80-minute flight was over and we landed at King Khalid International, quiet as ever in the middle of the night. Having purposely booked a seat towards the front of the plane, I reached Immigration well before the queues formed. My suitcase was out almost surprisingly fast, and the irritatingly persistent taxi tout waiting for me outside Customs turned out to be the first guy in line at the official taxi rank. I negotiated his ridiculous initial offer of SR160 to a somewhat more reasonable SR80 (still a good 25% premium on the official fare), and we zoomed off down the desert highway to Riyadh.

SV 554 RUH-DXB Y B777-200 seat 54L

Precisely the same flight as last time, only in the opposite direction, and the difference was night and day. Then, it was night and I sat in the aisle — now, it was day and I had a window seat, with amazing views out into the endless sand dunes below, a vast, endless expanse of reddish sand with occasional dunes and solitary roads. Dotted here and there, seemingly entirely at random, were perfect circles of lush green: farms in the middle of the desert, one of Saudi Arabia’s more harebrained attempts at diversification. (At one point, Saudi authorities had to issue a fatwa to declare the practice of feeding livestock with Saudi grain un-Islamic: at the time, all local production was bought by the government at around 8x the world price and sold for half it.)

The plane, too, seemed in slightly better shape, with a functional Airview program and two operational cameras. Lunch rolled around with much the same formula as last time, only this time with a rather tasty beef stew. Regrettably, I was foiled in my attempt to purchase two decks of Saudi Arabian Airlines playing cards, which would have been just the thing for a rousing game of strip poker on the weekend. Sigh.

The route from Riyadh to Dubai doesn’t follow the shortest route: instead, it heads a bit northeast, flying directly over Damman, before turning southeast and flying around Bahrain and Qatar, both visible in the distance, from the north. There was a fearsome tail wind of nearly 200 km/h pushing us along, but the time thus gained was lost at Dubai — we flew across the city and into the desert for a while before U-turning back and touching down on schedule.

SV 559 DXB-RUH Y B777-200 seat 40C

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I stepped inside the door of my first Saudi Arabian Airlines plane, and I’m not quite sure if it matched those fuzzy expectations. A B777 is still a B777, even though this one was a little faded and scruffy on the edges. One of the stewards was equipped with a closely-cropped head combined with the long, scraggly beard of a devout Muslim, but there were also stewardesses flitted about, with dark blue veils hiding the hair but not the faces.

We pushed back on schedule and, after a monotone male baritone read out an invocation starting with a dual Allahu Akbar (which passed the taxiing time nicely, I might add), we bounced off into the sky. Meal service followed, with a bit of confusion as there was a special meal for seat 40C despite me not requesting one; on declining, I was offered the usual “chicken or beef”, and picked chicken. This got me a rather dry pilaf-type rice dish with chicken chunks, a lettuce and tomato salad, an industry-standard warm bread bun (there must be a giant factory somewhere that makes these for every single airline on the planet) and a cube of strawberry cake (probably from the aforementioned factory as well).

Seat pitch was pretty decent (36″?), although the layout was a weird 2-5-2 and, this being a two-hour flight, I had a little time to look around. Despite the claims of the inflight entertainment mag, there was no airshow flight route map, only a rather less exciting arrow pointing the direction towards Mecca (qiblah). The plane was supposed to be equipped with two cameras, but only the forward-pointing one worked, and it too was switched off. The first five channels were, predictably, “The Holy Quran”, “Islamic Programming” (Arabic and English versions) and “Your Guide to the Hajj” (Arabic/English), but the rest was devoted to Hollywood fare, including “Rush Hour 3”, which I’d watched on SQ. No on-demand options though, just looping videos, so I didn’t have the chance to check out how Saudi censors had treated the scene where the cop duo checks out the backstage of a Parisian burlesque show… so I stuck to the qiblah-o-rama, which allowed interesting mental gyrations as I tried to estimate the plane’s heading and direction in reference to not our destination, but a city some 500 km to the southeast. Fun for the whole Islamic family!

Try as I might, an aisle seat over the wing didn’t allow me to see much scenery as we descended. After a smooth touchdown into scraggly desert scenery, we rolled up to one of the gates of the still remarkably futuristic-looking King Khalid International Airport. What awaited me inside?