Aviation: spreading wings

With heavy investments in both Oman Air fleet and airport infrastructure and the launch of new budget airlines, Oman is looking to attract a large number of transit passengers from across the world

Oman Air 787 Artwork (Source: ONA)

The Sultanate is witnessing a plethora of activities in the aviation sector, with the country’s first budget carrier spreading its wings and another regional airline set to start operations in November. All these new developments are happening at a time when the state-of-the-art Muscat international airport is getting ready to welcome passengers to its modern terminal. In fact, the heavy investments in both Oman Air fleet and airport infrastructure are in line with the country’s ambition to catch up with neighbouring Dubai or Qatar to attract a large number of transit passengers from across the world.

A budget airline will allow the country to check flow of traffic to neighbouring countries for connecting flights to various destinations, besides offering relatively cheap options for the large number of expatriate working class in the country. This would not only help diversification away from oil dependent economy, but also create employment opportunities for youth.

Salam Air, which launched its first flight early this year, is joining the league of latest Gulf airlines competing for the region’s low-cost travel market. Apart from domestic sector and connection to Jeddah and Dubai, the low cost carrier has ambitious plans for regional destinations, including Pakistan. Plans are also afoot to start flights to Madinah from Muscat and Salalah. Promoted by Muscat National Development and Investment Company (ASAAS), an investment holding firm of Oman government, Salam Air was formed to meet Oman’s rapidly growing demand for air traffic.

Salalah Air, another regional airline that received a licence from Public Authority for Aviation, is expected to take off in November. The new regional airline based in Salalah will link Dhofar with the main destinations in Oman for locals and tourists alike. Expecting the first aircraft in November, the airline will take advantage of a gap in the short-haul domestic travel market. The airline is expected to bring passengers to the Muscat and Salalah international airports and provide a connecting service for both Oman Air and Salam Air.

Both Salam Air and Salalah Air are trying to create a niche for themselves by introducing passenger friendly schemes, which will enhance the overall market for airline passengers. Further, these airlines will efficiently make use of the huge investment in expanding international airports and new regional airports.

Salam Air has introduced three easy fare options- light, friendly and flexi. Light fares have been designed for customers who travel light and only require hand baggage. The air fares are structured in such a way that the airline is attracting a large number of passengers who generally travel by bus in Muscat-Salalah route.  The national carrier Oman Air is also embarking on an ambitious expansion programme to enhance fleet strength to 70 aircraft by 2020 and the new aircraft will be a mix of both narrow body and wide-body planes. The airline has already added several destinations to its network.

Oman Air will have enough airport infrastructure when the expansion programme at the Muscat airport is complete, which will help it offer additional flights and right connections. Apart from fleet and new destination, the national airline is investing in products on board, infrastructure, information technology systems, and for training people. Oman Air has posted a robust 21 per cent growth in passenger numbers with more than 7.7 million passengers travelling with the airline in 2016, compared to 6.4 million passengers in 2015. Oman Air, which has a fleet strength of 47 aircraft now, has added several new destinations to its network. Currently, Oman Air’s fleet consists of four Boeing 787 Dreamliners, six Airbus 330-300s, four Airbus 330-200s, five Boeing 737-900s, 23 Boeing 737-800, one Boeing 737-700 and four Embraer 175s. Oman Air’s capacity has increased significantly over the last year recording an increase in flight movements by more than 4,000 flights to nearly 51,952 flights, an increase of 9 per cent compared with 2015.

Oman’s two international airports – Muscat and Salalah – have achieved a combined growth of 17 per cent or 1.92 million additional passengers in 2016, over the previous year. While Muscat International Airport handled 12.03 million passengers, as many as 1.19 million passengers used Salalah airport in 2016. The pace of growth in passenger traffic is continuing this year as well. For instance, for the first quarter of 2017, Muscat International Airport has witnessed a 15.9 per cent growth in passenger traffic at 3.36 million, from 2.90 million for the same period of last year.

Salalah airport has posted a 31 per cent growth in passenger traffic at 333,699 for the first quarter of 2017, from 255,686 passenger for the same period of last year.  While the fluctuating oil prices continue to affect the global economic outlook in general negatively, Oman Air’s revenues have increased to RO472 million in 2016, a growth of 1 per cent over 2015. Also, the contribution from Oman Air, as national airline, to the economy of the Sultanate is estimated at about RO600 million.

The Sultanate’s much-awaited Muscat International Airport, which is in an advanced stage of completion, will open for passengers by the end of this year. The new state-of-the-art terminal has a capacity to handle 12 million passengers per annum, which can be scaled up to 24 million, 36 million and 48 million in different phases if needed. The Muscat airport, which has two parallel runways, will also have 96 check-in counters, 29 passenger boarding bridges, 30 aircraft remote stands, a baggage processing capacity of 5,500 bags per hour, and a hotel with 90 rooms. With the recent expansion of Salalah airport, the airport’s passenger handling capacity has been raised to 2 million passengers and by the next phase it would be raised to six million, which will largely depend on growth in passenger traffic to Salalah. The airport has a 4-km long run way and huge parking facilities, besides large number of check-in counters.

The Duqm airport’s modern passenger terminal building, bagged by Larsen & Toubro and will have a capacity of 500,000 passengers per year, is in an advanced stage of completion. The airport will have a 37 meter high air traffic control tower and an air cargo terminal equipped to handle 25,000 tonnes of cargo per annum. Although Sohar airport started operation like Duqm a year ago, Oman Air could not continue operation between Sohar and Muscat due to lack of passengers. Now the ministry is planning to engage private airlines to start operation from Sohar.  Like the Duqm regional airport, the terminal building (which can handle half-a-million passengers per annum) at Sohar airport is progressing well. The first and second packages of the Sohar airport project were completed in 2015. The state-owned Oman Airports Management Company operates and manages five airports – Muscat International Airport, Salalah Airport, Sohar Airport, Khasab Airport and Duqm Airport.

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