Recently, awards were given out by Skytrax, an organization focused on airline quality, to the best carriers globally. The Customer Satisfaction Awards recognized the growing sophistication of new Gulf and Asian carriers, eclipsing more established airlines in the United States and Europe, as well as older Gulf carriers such as Saudi Arabian Airlines.
Skytrax 2015 rankings were announced in June in Paris during the venerated 51st Paris Air Show, and as such generated a lot of attention, good and bad, to the evaluated airlines.
According to the evaluation, as determined by passenger ballots, new Gulf and Asian carriers occupied the top ten places, while European, American and older Gulf carriers disappeared from the top ten list.
Qatar Airways was voted the best in the world, advancing from second place in 2014. Emirates placed fifth, down from fourth place last year, while Etihad advanced from ninth to sixth.
Singapore Airlines placed second globally, while Cathay Pacific moved from first to third place. Turkish Airlines took fourth position, while ANA, All Nippon took seventh. Garuda came in eighth and EVA Air was ninth. Qantas, surprisingly, took tenth place, because of its close partnership with both Gulf and Asian carriers.
Today, I will focus on Saudia, which moved downward from its already low place of (77) in 2014, to even lower (84) ranking in 2015. How did that happen to this old and venerable airline, which is celebrating its 70th birthday this year? Can this decline be reversed?
Strictly speaking, the rankings are based on specific balloting for Skytrax awards, but the organization's website contains hundreds of reviews from Saudia customers that could give some hints about the negative assessment. The reviews evaluated several key areas: staff, comfort, food, inflight entertainment and value. Overall, and in each of those five areas, Saudia scored about 60 percent, barely passing. Reviews covered both inflight and ground services, including lounges and boarding procedures.
Some complaints referred to aircraft quality on some routes: old and decrepit with broken seats and malfunctioning toilets. As such, Saudia's customers do not appear too demanding; they are not asking for state-of-the-art entertainment system or haute cuisine, just the basics.
Passengers also complained about the reservation system, whereby one could lose a confirmed, pre-paid booking, with no quick fixes when that happens: bumped passengers are not given priority on following flights, compensation, or refunds.
Some complaints focused on food regarding its quality, variety, health and nutritional value. Special diets and children meals were not always provided, even when pre-ordered.
Most complaints, however, centered around staff conduct, including contractors abroad, as to their technical abilities, communication skills, and flexibility in dealing with new and emergent circumstances. Complaints referred to both ground and inflight crews.
Some complaints related to how flight attendants were more interested in each other than in passengers' comfort. In some cases, passengers who were bumped off their confirmed flights believed that it was done to accommodate airline staff or their families and friends. In one amusing case, attendants unceremoniously moved a whole row of passengers so that attendants could take turns sleeping during the flight. In another case, they squeezed a family with small children, so that they could move a Saudia staffer traveling with his family from economy to business class cabin.
Passengers with special needs complained that the airline did not provide wheelchairs to and from plane. Families with small children pointed out that they were not given priority at boarding, or given the special care that most airlines accord to such passengers.
There were also complaints about lack of special attention to first and business class passengers, for example by not according them "fast track" treatment at passport control and security checks, or providing special buses to transport them to and from the plane.
As someone who has flown Saudia for five decades, or two-thirds of its long life, I was not surprised by the negative reviews. Those complaints, written by passengers who actually flew Saudia, indicate that there is a need for a great deal of improvement that could raise its ranking among global carriers.
Some may insist that improvement is difficult to bring about in a company that still operates according to a public sector model, where customer satisfaction and loyalty are not top objectives. Nor is profit maximization or cost reduction.
Such pessimism may be justified and we may not see tangible improvement before Saudia is finally privatized, or completely dissolved and reconstituted.
However, the fact that 60 percent of passengers were satisfied with Saudia's services means it can sometimes provide satisfactory service on some routes, giving hope that it can generalize that to all of its flights and perhaps change customers' perceptions. Let that be its 70th birthday gift to its passengers!