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Delta Will Partner with New Saudi Airline, Fly Nonstop to Riyadh

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Delta Air Lines is shaking up the global aviation world by partnering with a new Saudi startup airline while plotting its own nonstop flights between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. 

The Atlanta-based airline announced Tuesday it signed a strategic agreement to partner with Riyadh Air, a new Saudi Arabian government-backed carrier set to begin operating next year that's meant to rival the likes of Emirates and Qatar Airways. Delta and Riyadh Air could even pursue a joint venture – the closest kind of airline partnership that allows carriers to coordinate their schedules as well as flight pricing, just as Delta already does with several partner airlines like Air France, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic, among others.

And while it's short on details – including when flights would begin and which U.S. hub they'd fly to and from – Delta is even planning nonstop flights to the Saudi capital of Riyadh (RUH). That would make Delta the first and only U.S. airline to fly nonstop to Saudi Arabia.

American Airlines has its partnership with Qatar Airways while United Airlines has a relatively new tie-up with Emirates, yet Delta has lacked a marquee partner in the region … and a way to easily get passengers to the Middle East or connect onward to India and other destinations. 

Enter Riyadh Air: an airline that hasn't operated a single flight yet. 


Delta and Riyadh Air sign partnership agreement
Image courtesy of Riyadh Air


Riyadh Air is backed heavily by the Saudi government. It's a key part of the country's longstanding effort to turn the kingdom into a tourist destination despite years of concerns about human rights abuses, including the murder of a Washington Post columnist in 2018.

The airline is clearly built in the mold of Emirates and other neighboring Middle Eastern airlines: A premium carrier to connect travelers around the globe … with a stop in Riyadh on the way, hoping tourists will come visit and spend money. The airline ordered 39 Boeing 787 Dreamliners in March 2023 to begin operations next year, with an option for 33 additional deliveries after that.

Delta nodded toward that “premium” airline brand while making a clear bet that Saudi Arabia's emphasis on growing tourism will pay off. They see the partnership with Riyadh Air as a way to make inroads early.

“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,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in a statement. “Most importantly, Riyadh Air shares Delta’s commitment to providing an elevated customer experience, which is why we’re looking forward to building and expanding this partnership in the months and years ahead. We appreciate the opportunity to work with the Riyadh Air team and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia as they transform the transportation economy in the Kingdom.”


delta riyadh air
Image courtesy of Delta


Still, it's a surprising move for a few reasons.

First and foremost: Riyadh Air hasn't operated a single flight yet – nor are any scheduled. Signing on with an unproven carrier is an unusual move for the United States' financially strongest airline. 

And it's a major about-face for Delta. For years, Delta led the public charge against Emirates and other Middle Eastern carriers they argued were able to unfairly break into the U.S. aviation market thanks to hefty government subsidies. 

Yet it's not even Delta's first relationship with a Saudi Arabian airline. That distinction goes to current flag carrier Saudia, which belongs to Delta's SkyTeam alliance, allowing Delta flyers can easily book nonstops from the U.S. to both Riyadh and Jeddah.

But this partnership would go much further – and Riyadh Air has far greater ambitions of establishing itself as a major global carrier while putting Saudi Arabia on the map. The airline even poached its CEO from would-be rival carrier Etihad.

“We look forward to enjoying a very warm and productive relationship with Delta Air Lines, one of the largest and most successful airlines in the world. Riyadh Air and Delta Air Lines share common goals and pursue the highest standards in many areas including guest experience, loyalty, and sustainability, built upon great networks and strong connectivity,” Riyadh Air CEO Tony Douglas said in a statement.

Riyadh has been hard at work signing up future partners, inking deals with the likes of EgyptAir, Singapore Airlines, China Eastern, Air China, and Saudia, as well as a “strategic cooperation” with Turkish. Delta is its first partner in North America.

Senior Editor Allie Johnson and Travel Reporter Gunnar Olson contributed to this story 


Lead photo courtesy of south.jets via Flickr

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