Delta partners with startup Riyadh Air, laying the groundwork for flights to Saudi Arabia

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Delta Air Lines announced Tuesday that it has entered into a partnership with startup Riyadh Air with the aim of operating flights between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh Air, which aims to begin passenger flights next summer, is backed by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund and is part of the country's plan to diversify its oil-based economy and boost tourism.

Delta and Atlanta-based Riyadh did not provide a timetable for the start of flights or financial details of their partnership. Their CEOs said neither airline is taking an ownership stake in the other.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian and Riyadh Air CEO Tony Douglas said they envision selling tickets on each other's flights — a practice known as codesharing — that would require approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

They said the partnership could grow into a full-fledged joint venture. That move would require immunity from U.S. antitrust laws for the carriers to work together on prices and share revenues.

Bastian expects that the majority of passengers flying to the United States will increase in the future, but that passenger numbers will decline over time as tourism in Saudi Arabia grows.

No U.S. airline flies to Saudi Arabia. Saudia, the kingdom's national airline, operates nonstop flights between Saudi Arabia and New York, Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

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