As a no-frills, low budget airline, Salam Air has proved beyond doubt that to excel, the sky is not the limit. Excerpts from an interview with CEO, Capt Mohammed Ahmed. David Solomon reports
Could you talk about Salam Air’s operations, performance and major milestones since its launch?
SalamAir has in its short lifespan of one and a half years flown over half a million passengers to various destinations within the country and abroad as well. This year we hope to cross the one million mark. On many of our routes that we have opened up, for example Sohar-Salalah, we have created a niche market with our flights and to many of the other GCC countries.
As of now, the performance of the company can be termed as extremely dynamic. Sometimes market forces bring about contrary results, not really what you expect.
Let’s take for instance fuel prices. The general impression that gains ground when fuel prices go down is that you lower your major cost, so it’s good for the airlines. When fuel prices drop, the economy actually slows down. It may bring in a measure of short term happiness. But that is all. In truth, lower fuel prices have a detrimental impact on every aspect of the economy.
On the contrary, when fuel prices go up, people at large are most likely to complain and grumble about the higher prices they have to pay for fuel. But in the long term, higher prices bring in higher remittances and the extra income in general does a lot of good to the economy.
This is something that we are really proud of. I think we have managed to maintain a competitive edge and advantage with the number of flights we operate within the Sultanate and to various destinations abroad.
Give us a brief on your expansion plans (fleet, routes, people and infrastructure)?
We have recently launched our latest destinations to Tbilisi in Georgia and Baku in Azerbaijan. SalamAir will be flying three times a week to Tbilisi and thrice a week to Baku directly from Muscat. The SalamAir network now consists of 13 destinations including Muscat, Salalah, Suhar, Dubai, Doha, Jeddah, Karachi, Multan, Sialkot, and Shiraz. For our GCC network, we currently fly twice a day to Dubai, daily to Doha, and daily to Jeddah.
About Flights to other countries outside of the GCC, SalamAir is now flying to three destinations in Pakistan, including Karachi, Sialkot and Multan with twice a week to Karachi, twice a week to Sailkot, and twice a week to Multan respectively.
We plan to open up a flight to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh very soon. We are already flying three times a week to Shiraz, Iran and are now looking into the possibility of adding flights to Iraq and Sudan. Basically, what we are doing is that we are trying to open up and tap into markets that have not been looked at before. We have to encourage people from there to come here as well.
A lot of work has to be done on the infrastructural front. But we are tackling one thing at a time, which in my opinion is the smartest way to move ahead and move up.
Our fleet expansion is going ahead as per our schedule and by August this year we intend to add another two aircraft to our fleet.
Regarding Omanisation, despite being such a young and fledging airline, we have already achieved 64 per cent of Omanisation. As part of our ongoing policy, we are also trying to attract and induct more Omanis into the workforce. Apart from that, we have spared no effort to ensure that the best qualified experts from among the expatriates are recruited by us. But, our number one priority has always been to attract as many young Omanis as possible.
What is SalamAir doing to promote Oman as an international travel destination?
The opening of the new airport has opened up many possibilities. It has made it all the more important for all of us to use the state-of-the-art infrastructure in a capable and responsible manner, to improve our functioning and to ensure that passengers derive the maximum benefit from it all.
The National Tourism Strategy 2040 is looking to double the number of international visitors to 5 million. How is SalamAir, Oman’s first low-cost airline going to contribute to achieve these objectives?
Low budget airlines can carry larger volumes of passenger and therefore making a direct impact on revenue generation. We have to go where people would be attracted to go. At the same time, we have to market Oman as a prime tourist destination. Despite the fact that we are a ‘No-frills Airline’ we have managed to create a niche in the market. But we still have a long way to go.
We have to look at challenges and opportunities with an open mind and work in a constructive and positive manner towards our goals. The tourism potential in the Sultanate has not been tapped properly yet. But all the players in this field have to work together in a spirit of true competition and camaraderie.
What are the major challenges facing you? How are low-cost airlines faring in the Omani and regional markets, compared to legacy players?
Competition is a good thing because it brings out the best in all. We are sometimes compared with legacy carriers as competitors, yet mostly we complement each other in the jobs we both do on the ground and in the air.
We are in business so we like to do good for the business and for the country. The infrastructure is growing. I hope we can meet and exceed those targets.
With regards to pricing, we have to work much harder to change the people’s mindset with regard to last minute purchase of tickets and how this radically affects the price configuration. In any case, what we have been trying to stress at all times is that our prices are market-competitive.