The Omani way

Sheikh Aimen Al Hosni, CEO of Oman Airports, provides Joe Bates with an update on the progress of Muscat International Airport and the development of his country’s airport system.

Can you tell us a little more about Muscat International Airport (MCT)?

Muscat International Airport is arguably the jewel in the crown of our airports as it is the biggest airport in Oman and our primarily international gateway, facilitating international travel and connecting the Sultanate of Oman to the world through national carriers, Oman Air and SalamAir, and the host of international airlines that serve it.

How many passengers MCT handle in 2022 and what is the forecast for this year?

We handled 8.6 million passengers at Muscat Airport in 2022, which was more than double the 3.7 million that passed through the airport in 2021. If you remember, MCT welcomed an all-time high of 16 million passengers in 2019, which dipped to 4.0 million in 2020 and the low of 3.7 million the following year. This year we are on target to accommodate around 12 million passengers in Muscat.

How big a difference has MCT’s new terminal made to the airport’s operational efficiency and the passenger experience?

The 2018 opening of Muscat International Airport’s new terminal has transformed the airport and opened new growth horizons. The new 580,000sqm terminal has initially raised MCT’s capacity to 20 million passengers per annum, in the process, significantly improving the airport’s operational efficiency and taking the passenger experience to another level. The facility has modernised and expanded our capacity allowing us to better accommodate the growing number of passengers while providing a more comfortable and efficient journey for all passengers.

Who are the biggest airlines in terms of market share at MCT today?

After the national carriers Oman Air and Salam Air, flydubai is a key player as it has continued to grow at MCT, aided by its vast network and support of code-share carrier, Emirates. High demand for travel to the Indian subcontinent also means that Air India, Air India Express, Indigo, and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) are among the biggest operators in Oman.

The Oman News Agency recently reported that Oman Air and SalamAir had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) “to enhance various aspects of cooperation and develop and implement a joint commercial strategy in the field of air transport”. The article said that the rival carriers had agreed to explore ways to co-ordinate their networks to create greater operational efficiency and to work on areas such as destination planning, schedules, fleet and inventory management, and managing revenue and sales.

How important is Oman Air to the success of MCT and Oman’s other airports?

Oman Air is currently responsible for around 50% of our total traffic volumes. The total highlights its importance to us and the significant role it plays in our daily operations and overall success.

Are you striving to develop the cargo a side of the business?

Cargo development is a priority for us, even with such strong competition as Dubai International Airport (DXB) on our doorstep. MCT’s CEIV Pharma and CEIV Fresh status has played a significant role in supporting our cargo capabilities and attracting businesses looking for reliable and specialised cargo handling.

How important are sense of place facilities and retail/ F&B offerings to Oman Airports?

Sense of place facilities and retail/F&B offerings are key contributors when it comes to enhancing our passenger experience and also promoting the local culture, so will always be a consideration for us when upgrading or expanding or facilities. With regards to promoting Omani culture, The National Museum recently opened an exhibition promoting the cultural heritage of the Sultanate of Oman in a corner of the Departure Hall at Muscat International Airport. It constitutes a supportive addition to the revitalisation of cultural tourism in the Sultanate of Oman, as the Sultanate has a great history and multiple treasures, and it is important for visitors coming to the Sultanate of Oman or travellers through transit flights to know what these treasures abound in the National Museum.

What other airports do you operate in Oman?

Oman Airports is responsible for the operation of four commercial airports – Muscat (MCT), Salalah (SLL), Duqm (DQM) and Suhar (OHS), and separately operate and manage a number of Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) airports to support the oil and gas industry’s transportation needs.

Each of our airports plays a distinct role within the country’s airport system. As explained, Muscat is the main international gateway. Salalah plays a pivotal role as the main tourist airport catering to the growing tourism sector and welcoming visitors to Oman’s southern region. Duqm and Sohar primarily serve as smaller domestic and regional markets supporting local and regional connectivity needs.

Oman’s PDO airports are part of the Petroleum Development Oman network. Oman Airports plays a crucial role in managing and operating these airports ensuring their efficient and safe operation. Our involvement includes overseeing various aspects such as infrastructure maintenance, air traffic management, and airport services to facilitate their operations. Our target is to expand our footprint and expand our airport portfolio network and creating synergies and economy of scales.

How important is Oman’s airport system to the economic growth and development of the country?

I’m sure that my words would be echoed by airport leaders across the world when I say that all airports are important to the regions and countries they serve in terms of their connectivity and economic and social impact, and our airports are no exception.

Oman’s airport system is a key contributor to the country’s economic growth and development. Our primary mandate at Oman Airports is to enable the tourism and logistics sectors in Oman, which are fundamental economic drivers that will help diversify the national economy in Oman. We have made significant strides in this regard by growing the number of airlines that serve our airports and expanding the route network from Muscat and Salalah, in particular, which have improved the connectivity of Oman to the world.

As you might expect, Oman Airports plays a crucial role as a job generator in the Omani job market, and we are committed to developing our human capital to become a future aviation leader. I am proud to say that we are one of the leading companies in Oman when it comes to investing in the training and development of our staff and enhancing the quality of the Omani labour market. Indeed, we strive to be the employer of choice in Oman, which will help us to attract and retain the best talent.

Where are the country’s airports in terms of their recovery from the global pandemic?

We are getting there! I would describe the recovery as robust as passenger traffic across our airport system is now back to 75% of pre-COVID levels and Salalah Airport has achieved a complete recovery. Muscat Airport is making significant strides along its path to recovery, and I expect its passenger numbers to be back to 2019’s levels in the coming years.

To put this in perspective, our airports were closed for six months during the height of the COVID pandemic. The closure proved a significant challenge, but we managed to maintain our workforce. In fact, as a company we made a deliberate effort to ensure that our workforce remained employed and available for the eventual recovery phase. This commitment to our employees has been a key factor in our successful resumption of international flights without major staff issues.

How seriously do you take good customer service?

Anybody that knows me, and indeed the Omani people, will know that the delivery of good customer service is a never-ending mission for us. For this reason, we continually prioritise enhancing the passenger experience. Possibly the most standout initiative for us in terms of customer service innovation is the launch of singe token travel through embracing new, cutting-edge technology for automated passenger processing. Everything we do is influenced by the desire to make the passenger journey smoother and more convenient.

I should probably make it clear that we have heavily invested in enhancing the quality of services for our passengers, and our efforts have gained international recognition. These include MCT being named the Best Airport in the 15 to 25 million passengers per annum category for the Middle East in ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) awards for 2022. Salalah Airport also triumphed in the ASQ awards, being named as the Best Airport in the Middle East handling less than two million passengers per annum. It was also recognised for having the ‘Most Dedicated Staff’ and for offering the ‘Easiest Airport Journey’ in the Middle East. These achievements further underscore our unwavering commitment to delivering outstanding services across all our airports.

Is Oman Airports committed to the sustainable development of its gateways?

We may not be a pioneer in this area, but we are fully committed to sustainable development of our airport system and are committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

We are currently establishing the baseline for our new long-term environmental, social, and governance (ESG) roadmap. Our efforts include significant initiatives in energy optimisation and the proactive exploration of solar energy.

On an individual airport basis, Salalah has achieved Level 3 ‘Optimisation’ and Muscat and Duqm Level 1 ‘Mapping’ status respectively in ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme. These achievements are proof of our commitment to reducing our carbon footprint and promoting sustainable development in the aviation industry. We would like to thank the teams at each airport and across the company for making the recent ACA successes possible.

What is your route development strategy and does this differ by airport?

We want to expand the route networks of all our airports and have different strategies for each because, as previously stated, all serve very different markets.

Salalah is a well-known leisure and tourism destination for all GCC citizens and residents during the Khareef season, while the beautiful white sands, relaxing resorts, and preserved nature are a unique attraction for the European winter getaway. This unique appeal recently persuaded flynas to launch flights to Dammam, Jeddah and Riyadh in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

For MCT, we managed to attract a new airline (AirSial) this year and have few more in the pipeline as our teams are working tirelessly to increase the number of international destinations served from the capital. We will continue to attract additional business regardless of the challenges that many airlines are facing in terms of aircraft deliveries, engine issues, and shortage of pilots.

What comes next for Oman’s airports in terms of your vision 2040?

Our next steps involve continued infrastructure investments to align with Vision 2040 goals along with airport land development for diversification and competitiveness. Notably, we completed Phase 1 of Logistic Gate last year and plan to finish the remaining phase next year. This will help us position Oman Airports as a key enabler of economic growth in the state.

Logistics Gate, launched with DHL Express, is one of a number of strategic initiatives we are introducing to stimulate economic growth. We believe that the move is a major milestone that will pave the way for us to tap into the logistics market, and we have exciting plans to develop real estate around MCT and Salalah Airport to further expand our business activities and transform Oman Airports into an eco-friendly airport operator.

Moreover, in collaboration with our shareholder we are actively exploring potential investments in growth markets outside Oman, aligning with our commitment to fostering economic development and expansion.

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