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Video: New Saudi Carrier Wants to Fly Electric Planes to Planned Megacity

NEOM, the proposed new airline, is part of Saudi Arabia's plans to build a futuristic megacity in the Arabian desert and transition away from an oil-based economy

by Lauren Smith

March 28, 2023

Photo: Courtesy of NEOM

NEOM, Saudi Arabia’s planned sci-fi megacity, will get a dedicated airline in early 2024, initially to shuttle tourists to the project’s first resorts but later to serve a region that will theoretically house nine million people.

NEOM is the $500 billion pet project of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to be built in an unused stretch of desert in the northwest of the Arabian peninsula. Intended to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil and welcome tourists from around the world, NEOM will reportedly include an AI-powered 170-kilometer linear city, dubbed ‘The Line’ — a futuristic floating port in the Red Sea; a resort for year-round skiing; and a luxury island and yacht club, all powered by renewable energy.

Observers have questioned the feasibility of the megaproject, which has also called for flying taxis and an artificial moon. However, work is already underway in the region, and Saudi Arabia says a majority of the megalopolis will be complete by 2030. It’s already gearing up to bring tourists and investors to the country, and earlier this month announced the launch of a second flag carrier, Riyadh Air, to enable this.

Yet Another New Carrier: NEOM Airlines

Now Saudi Arabia says it will also introduce a third national airline, NEOM Airlines, specifically to serve the new economic zone. Flights will take off in early 2024 to coincide with the opening of the region’s first resorts. The carrier will eventually fly between NEOM and the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

NEOM Airlines will originally operate aircraft purchased secondhand and retrofitted, but by 2026 will transition to using “new innovative aircraft – whether it be electric, hydrogen-powered, or supersonic,” said airline CEO Klaus Goersch.

The carrier will initially be based at NEOM Bay Airport, open since 2019 and offering domestic flights and international departures to London and Dubai. It will eventually relocate to the massive NEOM International Airport planned for the region, intended to be one of the world’s largest.

Because the airline and airport will be built from scratch, they can offer seamless, futuristic travel “to a level that just has not been seen before,” Goersch said. This will reportedly include biometric check-ins to replace typical departure gates, planes with big screens compatible with personal devices, and onboard 6G Wi-Fi to accommodate gaming and chatting.

“Our ultimate ambition is that you will not think about being on a plane or in an airport, you will simply enjoy the experience,” Goersch said.

“There is a freedom in starting from zero and being well funded enough to explore the ideas that challenge the accepted norms,” he added. “We can be futuristic and efficient, we don’t have to modify or retrofit,” he said, comparing NEOM to his experience as chief operating officer (COO) at both Air Canada and British Airways.

Fully Sustainable Planes?

However, like some plans for NEOM, aims for its airline are likely pipedreams or at least wildly optimistic. For instance, while Goersch says the carrier is in the market for electric, hydrogen-powered, or supersonic planes to launch in 2026, forecasts put the arrival of these technologies years later.

For instance, Heart Aerospace, a Swedish company developing battery-powered planes, says its planes, with very limited ranges, will be ready at the earliest in 2028 and will still need to win regulatory approval. Airbus says it will launch a hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft by 2035, but consultants McKinsey & Company don’t anticipate hydrogen planes will enter the market until the late 2030s.

Additionally, although U.S. giant United Airlines showed interest in supersonic jets from aviation startup Boom Supersonic, the ultrafast planes aren’t due to come into service until 2029 at the earliest.

Rendering of a United Airlines Boom aircraft / Photo: Courtesy of Boom Supersonic

Observers have also expressed bewilderment about why Saudi Arabia is planning to operate three separate government-owned airlines, with newcomers NEOM Airlines and Riyadh Air to join established carrier Saudia, instead of plowing resources into just one or two carriers.

However, with the latest announcement, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated it’s very serious about establishing itself as a tourism oasis, even if some of the promises might be mirages.