Saudi Vision 2030’s plan to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and diversify into areas like tourism was one of the driving factors behind the Kingdom’s new tourist visa system. The visa received tens of thousands of applications within weeks of it being unveiled and tour operators in the region were rubbing their hands together at the prospect of Saudi’s doors being flung open to new business.
Unsurprisingly, a new focus on tourism has caused regional aviation operators to leap onto new opportunities presented by the Saudi market. One company with a unique approach to capitalising on the booming aviation market in the Kingdom was first seen in the flesh at the Dubai Airshow at the end of last year. Walking the tarmac, you will likely have spotted the glamorous, gold branding of The Helicopter Company (THC) splashed around entry and exit points.
The market entrant is a luxury operator running helicopter routes in Saudi Arabia, transporting VIPs, businessmen and tourists. Unable to resist getting to know the story behind this new Saudi business, AVB sat down with CEO Yahya Al Ghoraibi at THC’s airshow base. Warmly hosted in the firm’s luxury chalet, AVB is given a flavour of Saudi hospitality and feels as welcome as the guests it now ferries across the Kingdom in its fleet of helicopters.
Explaining how THC came into being, Al Ghoraibi notes that the business was established in late 2018 and is wholly owned by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF). After conception, the company continued wading through the necessary admin, documentation and licensing until mid-2019, when it received its airworthiness operations certificate (AOC) from regulators and began to acquire more helicopters. On establishing its fledgling fleet of AgustaWestland AW-139s, THC launched debut flights in September 2019 and has been operating continuously since then.
Al Ghoraibi describes the journey so far fondly and speaks with unbridled enthusiasm when recounting how the business started out with just one person, built a team of experts and created a new fleet of aircraft.
“The business has been received very well by the market and we have been flying continuously since we launched in September,” says Al Ghoraibi. “The [Saudi] market is booming and we are booming with it, from the perspective of a new transport [solution] that has never been seen in the Kingdom before.”
And for Al Ghoraibi, being the only company of its type in the Kingdom means a lot. But carving its own path in what is a relatively raw market has proved to be an obstacle for THC. He notes: “The market is promising, the market in Saudi is booming, but the issue is that we have to go as fast the market is expanding, which is a challenge.
"But that is the fun part of it. This has never been done before and we are doing it with quality and safety. We are not moving too quickly, we are moving in a way so that we can be mature in the business so we can provide the service that people are looking for – a luxury service.”
THC plans to eventually cover the interior of Saudi Arabia with its flights. Currently, it is focused on primary cities like Riyadh and on large swathes of the country, including the Makkah Province, Eastern Province and the entire west coast. The operator aims to straddle a number of dynamic sectors but in its initial phases it is focusing on targeting VIPs, government officials and businessmen and women who need to move around quickly and efficiently.
But Al Ghoraibi explains that THC will eventually start targeting tourists and pilgrims with convenient, luxury transport and scenic trips. The company will even look to pursue business with medical emergency services requiring rapid transport. Serving such a broad spectrum of customers with varying needs is “part of the challenge”, says Al Ghoraibi. Inevitably, such a strategy will eventually involve THC having to diversify its fleet.
In regards to fleet expansion, Al Ghoraibi says: “The aircraft are going to need to be different because the demand is different. You have a VIP demand and you have a tourism demand; they are both completely different to each other. You need different aircraft to cater for these different demands. And the market is open for all the types of aircraft that are available.”
The tourism market is particularly lucrative to Saudi Arabian businesses since the new visa was introduced in 2018. Thousands upon thousands of foreign tourists snapped up the new visas in the days and weeks following the launch and THC, along with other aviation operators in the region, has aimed to place itself as the centre of the frenzy. Al Ghoraibi says that the new system has helped significantly in THC’s initial launch, which could not have happened at a better time.
“Coming into the country nowadays is not how it used to be. You can get a visa in just minutes. And we are there ready, available to take passengers to and from cities and on tours in scenic areas. We are very excited. What is also exciting is the team that we have. We have selected a very good team which will take the company to the next level.”
In its mission to make the most of the burgeoning tourism market, THC’s executives are naturally looking for collaborations within the aviation sector and from supporting industries. Al Ghoraibi hopes to tap into the existing companies in Saudi to build on the services it offers. Partnerships will of course include MRO and FBO contracts and deals with other aviation services providers.
Al Ghoraibi confidently states that THC’s fleet “is going to grow quickly” and knows that it will need services available to support its expansion and the aircraft. THC’s emergence then, is being welcomed by local MRO and FBO providers in Saudi and the wider region.
It is perhaps surprising that a company liked THC has not flourished in Saudi Arabia before. Perhaps the strength of operators like flynas and flyadeal dominating domestic routes has made it difficult for new companies to muscle in. But THC’s obvious USP comes in its fleet of helicopters. Even turboprop and light aircraft would struggle to compete with the operator in terms of the specific market it is targeting.
Al Ghoraibi cedes that turboprop aircraft are an effective vehicle and have a place in the domestic market, but believes helicopters hold a distinct advantage. He comments: “[Planes] require a lot of time, you have to buy a ticket, go to the airport, check-in, wait for departure, it’s a lengthy process. With a helicopter, you just come down and take the aircraft to wherever you want in a very short time. It gives you more valuable time to use.”
Helicopters are unsurprisingly, therefore, a highly attractive option for time-poor individuals travelling for business or VIPs on tight schedules. The potential for THC in the Saudi market, Al Ghoraibi believes, is “huge”. And while sceptics may question whether Saudi Arabia has the infrastructure to support THC’s growth, the CEO insists that it does and that THC will continue to invest in more of its own helipads and other facilities. Additionally, the fact THC has a single owner in the PIF, means the young business can be flexible and dynamic.
Al Ghoraibi explains: “The PIF is very open and it gives us the freedom to identify our requirements and then action them. We have a green light and if we have any problems we can solve them quickly. On the other hand, we are getting a lot of support from the regulators. They are of course applying the rules to us 100%, but they are being very supportive because we are a new type of transport company in the country and they want this experience in the country. We do appreciate that support from the regulators, it’s very important.”
On the whole, Al Ghoraibi and his peers believe that the Saudi market is attracting large investors, contributing to a shift of the local aviation landscape. Operators are angling their strategies to capitalise on the emerging opportunities and markets, which will likely bring some exciting changes in the year ahead. Al Ghoraibi sees THC’s role in the developing market as helping visitors to Saudi to enjoy the country and to “make their journey more beautiful”.
Although perhaps a little romantic, Al Ghoraibi’s comments appear to be genuine and he seemingly relishes the chance to play a part in and help accelerate the Kingdom’s new chapter of aviation growth. As long as THC can keep up with demand and overcome the challenge of scaling its services quickly, it could soon become a serious player in the local market. And who knows? We may eventually see its helicopters thudding their way to other parts of the Middle East.