This is another of the series features first published in magazines around the world. This one was first seen in February 2018 and the airline has seen a few changes since then.
The Sultanate of Oman is the oldest independent state in the Arab world but has been rather overshadowed by its near neighbours, only coming out of self isolation in the 1970’s when the reigning Sultan was overthrown by his son in a bloodless coup who then began a liberalisation and modernisation programme, bringing the Country into the modern world whilst at the same time keeping its own identity.
The nation’s airline has somewhat mirrored this history, most of its bordering nations have national airlines which are both well established with rich histories as well as large fleets and large worldwide networks. Within 1400km there are the home bases of Saudia, Qatar, Etihad and the closest and possibly biggest rival Emirates; all of these airlines are now in the forefront of setting new standards of inflight facilities and ambience.
The country’s aviation industry is currently going through what could be termed considerable change. The new airport currently under construction at Muscat is yet to open and the planned date of March this year is not one most observers feel will be met. Both Omani airlines have also recently had their CEO’s unexpectedly resign from their posts. Salam Air’s François Boutellier left in July 2017 not even seven months after the airline commenced operations with Oman Air’s Paul Gregorowitsch leaving in November of the same year with the airline as yet to appoint a permanent replacement. There is speculation that any replacement will be an Omani national as is the acting CEO Abdulaziz Al Raisi who was previously executive vice-president for products and brand development.
This against the backdrop of an opportunity to enjoy an uplift in traffic due to the economic blockade that has been instigated on Qatar by its neighbours in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE which includes the suspension of air links between these Counties. This is turn has meant that anybody wishing to fly to Qatar from one of these countries will need to do so via a third country with Oman and Kuwait being perhaps the obvious choices.
In addition to this opportunity there has been a long standing desire to increase traffic to this rather different Middle Eastern country in connection with the country’s tourism office. Hotels, retail and leisure facilities are under construction to service this upsurge in demand.
A different approach.
However the oil rich countries of the Middle East can no longer spend without thought, as decreasing oil revenues are making such plans not as easy as they may have seemed just a short time ago.
Oman therefore, like its neighbours, needs to make money elsewhere and tourism to this previously hidden land is one where the airline can, and does, play a major part. In addition to increasing the numbers of people making Oman their destination, the Airline realised that one way to help the country was to make a lot of its transit traffic have a stay in country rather than simply spend time in the terminal, perhaps along the lines of Icelandair who in conjunction with the country’s tourist authorities have seen astronomical growth over the last few years.
Facing these challenges, the airline also needed to do things differently than the neighbouring big boys and at the same time be in keeping with the country which doesn't boast many ‘firsts’ or ‘biggests’.
Oman is a country trading on its rich history, a keen sense of identity and a chance to view and engage with what might be termed the true Arab world. Not through the rose coloured spectacles of excessive wealth but traditional low rise towns and Bedouin values. The country, its welcoming inhabitants call home, has an abundance of natural beauty including spectacular mountains, pristine coastlines and sweeping deserts.
Its ancient trading sea port capital of Muscat is full of traditional, yet superb architecture of stunning mosques and castles rising out of simple single storey white washed villas with the labyrinth like souqs full of merchants selling Omani specialisms like silver and frankincense to fabrics and foodstuffs all surrounded by the aqua blue waters of the Gulf of Oman on one side, while inland lies the striking al-hajar mountains.
The airline, founded in just 1993, formed from its forerunner of Oman Aviation services, works hand in hand with tourist authorities in promoting the country, finding its niche with point to point services aimed at providing a fillip to not only the tourism industry but commercial and industrial interests as well. In fact it is one of the airline’s strategic objectives to contribute to the development of the Sultanate of Oman
Initially, as Oman was one of the countries served by the Pan Arabian airline Gulf Air, it took until 2007 before the airline expanded from its initial regional services to Dubai and Trivandrum in India as the Omani Government at that time sold its shares in Gulf Air, using the funds to recapitalise the failing national carrier and receiving 80% ownership in the process. In November of the same year service to London’s Gatwick airport was initiated with A310 Aircraft. Two years later the airline received it first A330 and new services were launched to Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, Male and Colombo as well as moving its London service to Heathrow.
2010 was a busy year with eight new routes as well as becoming the first airline in the world to offer inflight mobile phone and wifi. The following year saw more expansion with new routes and strategic partnerships with both Oman Air Holidays and the Port of Salalah forming Sea/Air links.
However in late 2013 the airline made what was expected to be a turning point in its history by hiring an experienced industry professional, albeit with a healthy sprinkling of good fortune.
Paul Gregorowitsch, whose previous jobs had found him taking senior management positions at Martinair and airBerlin had cause to transit through Muscat en route back to his home in the Netherlands.
Talking at a press conference to announce the new Manchester to Muscat route Mr Gregorowitsch told me that “Travelling through Muscat was planned for no other than just as a transit stop” Having been bowled over by the country and its welcoming inhabitants as well as the offer of a new job heading up the counties flag carrier, he moved both himself and his family out just a few months later.
Mr Gregorowitsch arrived during the early stages of a ten year plan which amongst other things was to see the airline engage in an expansion programme to increase to around 70 aircraft and 75 destinations by 2020. Not only this, but there was also to be the implementation of further code share agreements. Currently Oman Air has a number of agreements mainly on routes in the Middle and Far East but also into Europe as well, although whether it will ever join one of the global alliances is yet to be seen.
2015 saw the start of its ambitious aircraft expansion plans with the arrival of the first 787 Dreamliner.
Currently Oman Air’s fleet consists of seven Boeing 787 Dreamliners, six Airbus 330-300s, four Airbus 330-200s, five Boeing 737-900s, 22 Boeing 737-800, and four Embraer 175s. More Dreamliners will join the fleet in the coming years.
However the ambitious growth plan has had to be scaled back somewhat. The airline is still not in profit, having lost a reputed $300m in 2016 with the forecast for a further loss in 2017. The falling price of oil has meant that the government is no longer providing financial assistance meaning the carrier has now to stand on its own undercarriage. Any money that is available is going to maintaining the Omani economy.
The long mooted route to the US might also be one of the casualties of this scaling back in growth
In 2016 the expansion plans were trimmed somewhat in line with the problems created by the fall in oil prices with the plan now for around 62 aircraft by 2022 rather than the original 70. This despite the airline increasing passengers loads by 1.3m, a rise of 20% on 2015 figures. At the time Mr Gregorowitsch said that the whole gulf region was (and still is) in the middle of a cash shortage and: “faces enormous economic challenges and needs to become more sustainable. We are forced to operate more in the way of a normal, commercial business, while remaining the national airline.”
Prior to his departure Mr Gregorowitsch made comment that, although not known to be on the cards, a merger was one possible route to becoming more financially secure.
“If we don’t want to end up like Malév or Sabena we need growth, and that is possibly only to be had with a partner,” he said. Talking further about consolidation generally within the Gulf region: “The current integration of the offerings of Emirates with Fly Dubai, which now serves eleven destinations on behalf of Emirates, is a good example,’’ he adds. “ And I wouldn’t rule out a merger of Emirates and Etihad.”
Its order for the 737MAX is still current and the intention is to go ahead as planned. However the planned order for either the A350XWB or for more 787s is yet to be placed.
The airlines plan with new routes is not to find as many as it can but to open routes with a minimum frequency of four times weekly that it considers will move quickly to daily and then to double daily or more and so spare capacity is placed on route growth before new destinations. The airlines mix of aircraft also offers the flexibility to reach the levels of frequency desired on routes by allowing the correct size of aircraft to be deployed on each route at any specific time.
The airline’s most recent route launch was its second in the UK, Manchester. This route started as a daily flight served by A330-200 but by late summer the larger -300 now serves all flights.
It was on the airline’s most recent route launch that I experienced Oman Air’s service. On board service is something the airline is proud of. For First and Business class passengers not only are there the standard premium check in desks but at Muscat the premium lounges have complimentary spa treatments, and à la carte dining in addition to tranquil relaxation areas. Although the previous perk for First and Business Class passengers enjoying a free chauffeur service to the airport has recently been discontinued. First Class passengers can still enjoy a limo ride from the lounge to the aircraft.
Once on board first class passengers will enjoy a Mini Suite all with direct aisle access which convert into what the airline claims to be the longest lie flat seat in the skies. The Business Class seats in the airlines long haul workhorse the A330 again, all have direct aisle access with ample space and lots of tech. Further back economy passengers have not been left out. Adjustable head and leg rests on every seat with what the airline calls generous leg and elbow room. All seats feature state of the art IFE available from individual seat back screens with audio and video on demand as well as live satellite TV. As mentioned Oman Air was a pioneer in on board mobile phone and internet connectivity and this is available in all three classes.
Consistency is currently an issue with the airline aiming at providing the same level of service regardless of destination or flight times and it must be said that the service on board my flight wasn’t quite up to the standard expected, and that which has helped win the carrier many accolades. This is an area the company is looking to address with greater use of Omani nationals as cabin crew, the rationale being that Omani nationals will feel more attached and committed to the airline rather than it being simply a job.
This commitment to providing a quality passenger experience has resulted in a number of awards. Skytrax Best Business class seat (2011, 2012) and Service excellence. World Travel Awards have made Oman the worlds leading airline for economy class for the last four years and in the Middle East both Economy and Business have won the award for the last five years. In 2017 the airline was also named the winner in the World’s Ultimate Service Award in Hospitality 2017 These in addition to a raft of regional awards.
The overarching aim of the airline is simply to be the best but by being a successful and sustainable company; however it also wants to stand out from its close rivals and not, in the words of its former CEO Paul Gregorowitsch be a “plastic fantastic airline or indeed country”. He went on to say that the philosophy of how it treats its customers is different, “We don't handle passengers; we serve guests”.
The airline also has designs on increasing its cargo business and the plan has many different facets. The new 737MAX aircraft will replace existing NG versions but will be able to carry more belly hold cargo. A joint cooperation agreement with Cargolux for sea-air freight services to India signed in March of 2015, saw sea/air services to Chennai with a second service launched just five months later. This cooperation is growing further as services to Mumbai started in early February 2016.
An uncertain future
Mr Gregorowitsch seems to have contributed a considerable amount in his tenure and only time will tell the reasons behind his, seemingly, early departure. It won’t go un-noticed that Mr Gregorowitsch left his previous posts prior to the subsequent demise of the airline, albeit with a three year gap in the case of Air Berlin. However Oman Air has some work to do, the loss in 2016 was reputed to be around $300m and competition from its near neighbours is not going away any time soon. The scaling back of the carriers growth plans was also only announced just weeks before the resignation itself was announced whilst at the same time the low cost carrier Salam Air is pushing ahead with its expansion plans.
A country the size of Oman needs its own airline and a strong one at that.