THEN WE TAKE THE WORLD

Saudi Arabia 2017 | AVIATION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Saleh H. Al-Ghamdi, Acting CEO of Saudi Air Navigation Services Company (SANS), on maximizing safe and effective services, effectively increasing the rate of Saudization, and easing the pathway of women into the workforce.

Saleh H. Al-Ghamdi
BIOGRAPHY
Saleh H. Al-Ghamdi holds a PhD in systems and modeling from the City University of London after receiving an MSc in data communication systems and a BSc in electronic engineering. He’s the Acting CEO of SANS. Previously, he held several leading roles in different sectors of the General Authority of Civil Aviation of Saudi Arabia. In over 30 years of experience, he has overseen the management of more than five projects. He also attended many specialized courses in engineering, management, and leadership. He also has six different publications in the field of human performance and reliability in Air Traffic Management Systems.

How has the recent split from GACA affected your organization and its operations?

The country is moving further toward corporatization and privatization and seeks to do so with as many entities as possible. The government wants to see a dramatic increase in performance and service quality in all areas. The idea is to develop financially independent, sustainable companies that provide high-quality services to stakeholders across Saudi Arabia. Our main customers are the airlines flying over Saudi airspace or transiting through the country. The split from GACA has empowered us to become a leaner and more efficient company. We now collect our air navigation charges from airlines sooner, ensuring we provide a better service, and have catalyzed a company-wide improvement in all areas of our operations with safety as our top priority.

What will be the specific operational changes facing SANS moving forward?

SANS will continue its efforts their flight operations. As traffic grows quickly in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia takes a great portion of the regional traffic. Therefore, SANS is planning to redesign the airspace structure to increase capacity and improve efficiency. This effort will include heavy investment in the empty quarter area, serving thousands of future flights crossing Saudi Arabia.

How do you plan to fund some of these new initiatives, and how quickly do you plan to become fiscally independent from the government?

Moving forward, we have to fund every project ourselves. We have even funded a number of smaller projects that we began a few months ago. We have a number of strategies to raise capital. Air Navigation's global strategy is based on cost recovery. This means we are allowed to cover our cost plus a small margin of around 10%, which is to be used for upgrades. We have also made agreements with local banks in the event we need extra funds for special projects. The other option in case of major capital investment would be through increasing tariffs. Moreover, there are several initiatives aimed at cost optimization and increasing non-aeronautical revenues.

How did SANS achieve its rate of Saudization, and what lessons can be learned from your experience with the rest of the economy?

The company is more than 90% Saudi, while the air traffic controllers are 100% Saudi. This was achieved by developing and implementing a solid recruiting plan. In the past, we recruited directly from high schools; however, in the last couple years we have established a fast-track program. In this program, we take students with good English that meet a certain level and enroll them straight into the ATC program. By ensuring we have strict selection criteria for controllers, which is a job that requires a special mindset and aptitude, we have had a higher success rate. In engineering and maintenance, we still have some expats to help, but the majority of the workers are Saudis. We maintain this by enrolling them in a high-quality training program. By doing so, we have made great strides in Saudizing this sector. We are considering recruiting female staff as well, which could happen soon. Part of the 2030 Vision calls for involving women in the economy to a much larger degree, and we seek to play a part in this.

What does the year ahead look like for SANS?

We are optimistic about 2017 and have ambitious programs in the pipeline. We have to ensure that the culture of the company is more private-sector oriented. The entire corporate mindset needs to be changed. We need to ensure our employees recognize that the company will operate differently as a private entity, and we want this recognition to change their behavior. We have set up a new unit called customer relations management, which will take care of complaints and suggestions from customers and stakeholders. This is a unique year for us.