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Aviation sector flying high in Oman

Interview - October 5, 2012
Eng. Khalfan Said Al- Shueili, Head of Readiness of Oman Airports Management Company talks to United World about the potential the country has to attract more tourists

The new Muscat International Airport is going to bring in more visitors to Oman, and the country are realistic with their goals. It is targeting a niche market of high-end tourists with the premise of delivering quality not quantity. The expansion of the aviation sector in the country should also attract more airlines, improve travelers´ experiences and create over 1, 500 new jobs.
Construction works at the new Muscat International Airport (MIA) are progressing at a rapid pace. It is one of the most ambitious development projects in the history of Oman and once completed, flying into Muscat will be a whole new experience. Please tell us about the significance of this project and the long-term vision behind it?

Muscat International Airport was officially inaugurated in 1973 when it was called Seeb International Airport. The airport was growing according to the needs of the national carrier, which was Gulf Air at the time. When the ownership structure of Gulf Air changed, the government adopted a whole new philosophy and decided to invest heavily in the new national carrier - Oman Air. Simultaneously, the government had already embarked on a project to build a new airport in order to be able to cater to the fast growing tourism and business sectors in Oman, and this project started in 2005. In 2008, the name Seeb International Airport was changed to MIA.

We expect to record passenger traffic in the year 2012 between 7-7.4 million passengers per year. The new passenger terminal building is the largest building of the project and it is designed for expansion into four stages. In the first phase that will be completed by end of 2014, the terminal will have the capacity to handle 12 million passengers per year, although it could handle more depending on how the operator wishes to use the facility. In the second phase, the terminal will be expanded to accommodate 24 million passengers, and in the third phase it will reach 36 million. In the future, we have enough space to build another terminal building, which would allow us to handle 48 million passengers per annum.

We are also building a new runway in Muscat. The existing runway will be rebuilt, so the new airport will have two runways and this will enable independent parallel operation. Eventually all operations will migrate from the existing terminal to the new one.
The construction of the infrastructure is being handled by the Ministry of Transport and Communications and the newly established Public Authority for Civil Aviation. They are responsible for developing and delivering the new infrastructure, while Oman Airports Management Company (OAMC) is participating in the project as the operator of these facilities in the future.

Tell us more about the design and facilities of the new terminal building?

We used the highest international parameters in developing the new airport. It is in line with the ICAO standard 4F (it can accommodate A-380 airplanes). The runway is at the top end of services. For passenger operations, the project has been developed at IATA service level A, which is the highest possible level. Amongst other things, this means that the time each passenger requires to move from one area to another is related to the design of the building.

In terms of design, the state-of-the-art building captures the feel of traditional Omani architecture, but at the same time there are many technical innovations in the facility. The terminal is about 350,000 sqm, and the technology that is being implemented is a quantum leap from what we have today. There are over 38 systems that are used to operate the aviation business and to maintain the buildings, as well as create a passenger experience of the highest level. MIA is the gateway for Oman and Muscat receiving passengers from all over the world, so it has to send the message that Oman is open to the world.

How is the new Muscat International Airport going to compete with other leading regional transportation hubs, such as the Dubai or Doha International Airport?

We are not in direct competition in terms of the size of the airport. We want MIA to be amongst the best in the world in terms of the level and quality of services provided. It is an immense improvement from what we have today. It allows for greater expansion and it follows the pathway of Oman Air’s expansion as a national carrier.

When it comes to other regional airports, there are different scenarios. For example, Dubai can accommodate around 48 million passengers today, and aims to exceed Heathrow with 98 million by 2020, while Doha is targeting around 36 million passengers. At MIA, we follow the philosophy of the government which is catering to a niche market and high-end tourism that we are trying to bring into our country. It is not primarily about the volume, but rather about the quality of tourists that we want to attract.

Do you expect the increase in passenger arrivals to be mainly the result of travelers coming to Oman, or transiting through Oman to another destination?

Let me talk about the recent trends. In both Muscat and Salalah airport, over the last 2-3 years we had a very good growth in passenger arrivals of around 14%. So far, in 2012 we have even reached 20% growth. Transit amounts to around 30% of our traffic, while the remaining 70% is O&D (Origin and Destination), and the growth is on both sides.

Today, we are constrained with the capacity of the existing airport which limits us to a certain extent when it comes to attracting more traffic. This is the case with any airport that migrates to a new airport, but I think there are mechanisms to improve things until we move. Once we move, there will be room for massive growth. More airlines that would like to come to Oman will have better slots and facilities. The passenger experience is going to improve very much as well. Oman is a gateway and therefore we are primarily customer-oriented and would like all of our clients to get the highest standard of customer service and experience.

Despite the constraints of the old airport, this year you received the Best Airport Award for Staff Service in the Middle East for the second year in a row. This award is considered a global benchmark for airport excellence and quality ranking. How did you manage to achieve this recognition with such stiff competition in the region?

It is easy to explain. If you look at our facilities, you will see that we have Omanis working in all areas within the airport and beyond. That human capital is something that we really capitalize on. Even though we have limited facilities, we are still able to offer a unique traditional experience to our passengers, which is synonymous with Omani hospitality and appreciation that we give to our guests. That experience is extremely important.

We believe that our staff, and more precisely our Omani staff, who are attending the passengers and providing them the services are the major asset we have. We aim to hold onto this award and continue with our success within that framework and the humane approach. We aim to continuously provide a high level of services with a smile.

How many people do you employ currently and how many job opportunities will the new airports create?

Today OMAC employs around 450 people between Muscat and Salalah. We have already developed our strategies around our manpower requirements for Muscat and Salalah. We have highlighted that in 2012, we will be employing around 500 extra staff, in 2013 about 650 extra staff, and in 2014 around 200 extra staff. That is just our own staff. In total, this will amount to a bit less than 2,000 people.

These are very good jobs. For example, we need to fill over 250 positions in IT and a lot has been done already. We have publicized around 300 positions so far this year, and we are involved in a massive recruitment campaign. We want this company to be the ideal place for anyone looking for a technical, operational and even managerial position.

Even though we still have a year or two before we move to the new airports, we are already employing young graduates and investing heavily in training them. We are closely linked with different airport operators, contractors and suppliers all over the world as well as overseas on-the-job training. We have a genuine training plan. We are spending heavily and effectively on training our locals so we can achieve our target to provide a high level of service. 

Currently there are 30 airlines flying to Oman, serving 55 destinations in 28 countries. Are you already negotiating with other airlines looking forward at 2014?

We are working on developing a product in order to be able to attract the right partners in our industry. We want to target the real markets. It is an ongoing process, and the campaign has already started with identifying our commercial opportunities. We seek to develop the best approach for these ventures and I think there are plenty of opportunities for us. We are currently constrained with the facilities, which do not allow us to attract more airlines as we would like, but as we move to the new airport we could easily double the number of airlines that operate in MIA.

Beside the capacity constraints, what challenges do you face at this moment?

The challenge is that we have to realize the vision for an airport that is to be viewed as one of the best international airports, providing a highest level of service. It is about understanding that vision and trying to translate that in our day-to-day work. We are trying to choose the right mix of people, instill this vision into our new recruits and provide adequate support, resources and training.

Furthermore, the massive transition from the existing airport to the new airport comes along with many challenges. For instance, we do not have a pool of Omanis that we can recruit immediately with that level of airport experience. To deal with this, we are trying to recruit people even before we need them. We are employing 500 people this year, but they will are being brought for the new airports. We will be bridging the gap in their experience. It is not just a matter of anticipation. We realize that this is a fact. We know that we need to move on. We are executing this together with our stakeholders and other partners so that we can all deliver. At the end of the day, it is not just about an operator that can take care of this airport, there are also other service providers that have to understand the challenges ahead of us, and work on them step-by-step, so we can migrate smoothly.

How long is the ‘migration’ process going to take?

We have six months from when it is handed over to the operator (April 2014 theoretically) and a six month period for the transfer, which will involve trials where we try every pathway that passengers will flow through, which will ensure that everyone is ready for the move. So we are identifying the manpower and training requirements as well as the procedures that we have to prepare and understanding and working together for the project to design the operations in the new terminals so that we can operate in a cost-effective manner.

Trials will resume in those six months and there will be more training for our employees. We will be putting people in the new airport and preparing for the final transition from this airport to the new airport. There is probably more than one way we can close down this airport and open the other, but this is work-in-progress.

Other than the passenger terminal, the air cargo handling and warehousing facilities are also undergoing massive expansion. MIA will remain the national air cargo hub and it will be part of an integrated air cargo network that is being developed in the country. How will the new cargo terminal boost the logistics industry in Oman?

It is one of the main assets in Muscat International Airport that we would like to improve on. Considering MIA’s location and the fact that the Port of Sultan Qaboos has become a tourism harbor, this allows for more growth in the cargo sector. It is a new venture that we are going to explore seriously and definitely try to improve, in order to maximize on the available opportunities and potential of Oman’s location, and in association with other logistics and transport nodes, such as the sea harbors and the upcoming regional railway infrastructure.

OAMC is also the operator of the Salalah Airport. How is the construction of the new airport in Salalah progressing?

The Government is pushing to achieve the contractual milestones that have been announced by the ministry. The work will be officially completed mid next year. The project is progressing well and there has been quite an improvement in the construction.

Salalah will also have a new terminal building and a new runway. We are moving from a terminal that is about 6,000 sqm that is already attracting around 6,000 passengers per year, to a 60,000 sqm facility. So in terms of size, value and available space and the level of service, it is a big improvement.

The new terminal at Salalah Airport envisages an expansion of capacity to 1 million passengers annually by 2014. The airport has been designed to allow for further expansions to cater for future demand growth to 2 passengers annually when the demand is required.

The expansion of Salalah Airport is part of a strategic offensive to develop Salalah as a tourist destination. The town is located 1,000 km south of the capital Muscat, and with a much cooler climate during the summer months, it's a magnet for both Omanis and other Arabs. Salalah Airport is a major gateway for the Dhofar region so it will be another cornerstone in the economical and social development in the region. We are also working closely with other entities like the Salalah Free Zone in order to explore other opportunities that will boost the growth of the region.

What about the other 4 regional airports (Sohar, Duqm, Adam, and Ras al-Hadd) which are currently under construction and will also be managed by OAMC once they are completed?

There are three packages available for contractors in each one of these airports. Package one concerns infrastructure and services, roads, access, fencing and security; package two concerns runways and taxi ways; and package three is a terminal building.

Packages one and two have already been awarded for all airports and construction has begun and some of it has already been delivered. Package three is in the design stage. We have Sohar Airport, which is in a major economic industrial city, and there are different opportunities arising as a result of this airport. We also have an airport in Duqm, which will be one of the cornerstones of this development and will be very important for boosting the economic zone in that area. On the other hand, the airport in Ras Al-Hadd is supporting tourism in that region.

How is the newly established Public Authority for Civil Aviation going to boost Oman’s aviation sector and its international profile?

It has already brought strong regulations in the sector and established a strong connection with many international bodies. It will give more weight to this industry and enable us to have better incentives for Omanis working in this sector.

There are different mechanisms established for growth and for improving services that are provided by this body. There is potential for further growth and more opportunities can be created as a result of the creation of this authority. It has just recently been announced, and they have already announced some of their plans and strategies, and it is definitely forward looking and positive. We have a very good cooperation with them and they are helping us grow and improve our operations.

What message would you like to send about Oman in times of significant changes in the Arab world? What do you think the world should know about Oman today?

Oman is a unique destination. It has its own culture and heritage, and it has already reached out to the world, inviting others to come and experience Omani culture, its tradition and unique flavor. In Oman, most of the services are provided by Omanis.

The country has a huge young population and it is trying to capture their aspirations and create opportunities for them within Oman and abroad as well. I think Oman is a good place to visit, and we welcome people from all over the world to come and visit us and experience Oman. We do things step-by-step at our own pace. We are offering a distinctive product to world travelers and we invite them to come and see how we do things in our own style.