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Exciting phase for Oman as airports abound

Interview - October 24, 2012
Six new airports are currently being developed in Oman including the Muscat International Airoport (MIA) considered to be the largest civil engineering project ever undertaken in the history of the country
The Public Authority for Civil Aviation (PACA) was established in May 2012, so please give us a brief overview of your professional background and how you came to be the CEO of PACA?

The Public Authority for Civil Aviation (PACA) was formed based on a Royal Decree issued in May 2012. On the same day another Royal Decree was issued appointing me as the CEO of PACA. I have no history with civil aviation other than a passenger as I come from the oil and gas sector, but it is an honor to be recognized and trusted with such an important sector for Oman. After all, my role is more of a leadership one and not a day-to-day civil aviation task, which in a way is no different than what I was doing in my previous job.

After graduating from the secondary school in Oman, I continued my higher education in the UK where I got my first degree in mathematics & computer studies. Later on I changed to engineering and did a masters in petroleum engineering at Heriot-Watt University. I spent the last 20 years working in the oil and gas industry in different assignments and locations. I worked for Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) and had the opportunity to be seconded to Shell Nigeria for three years, and recently to Shell Canada for another three years. After returning from Canada in October 2010, I was appointed as the Production Director for the North Oman Oil, overseeing all the developments in the northern part of the country until I was appointed to this new position in May this year.

Currently, there are six new airports being developed in Oman. What exactly falls under your responsibility, and what is the responsibility of the Ministry of Transport & Communications?

PACA is the regulator of the Civil Aviation sector in charge of ensuring that Oman air space and civil aviation activities are safe,  comply with international standards and that all applicable licenses and regulatory requirements of aircraft operators, pilots and cabin crews, inspection & maintenance of aircrafts are met.  PACA is also the sole provider of air navigation and meteorology services in Oman. 

Now when it comes to the development of the new airports, ultimately, the Ministry of Transport & Communications is the responsible government entity for the construction process.  Everything goes to the minister, then to the Tender Board, Council of Ministers, and so on. Below that we have the Airport Technical Committee, which reports to me. PACA has a small project team that executes its projects, and with the ongoing airport developments, the responsibility was also given to that team to oversee the construction of the new airports. That includes the expansion of the Muscat international and Salalah airports, and the construction of the four new domestic airports in Sohar, Duqm, Ras Al-Had and Adam.

These projects are very large, so the project team was also complemented by an international project management team and an international consultant. They help to manage and execute all the different contracts and pieces of the project execution.
In a way from an organizational point of view, I am actually providing a service to the Minister of Transport & Communications to manage and coordinate the different activities within the airport construction. But in terms of official responsibility, it falls under the Minister of Transport & Communications.

Please tell us more about the capacity of the six new airports and the different locations where they are being developed?

The airport development project team is constructing new airports in six different areas and cities in Oman, with varying sizes and facilities.  Namely, new Muscat International Airport alongside the existing one, new Salalah Airport alongside the existing one, and brand new airports at Sohar, Duqm, Ras Al-Had and Adam. 
The Muscat International Airport is being developed in a few phases, with phase one expected to add a new runway, a passenger terminal, over 26,000 tons of cargo base, an in-terminal transit hotel with around 90 rooms, a new state-of-the-art traffic control system, amongst other facilities. We have plans to take this capacity up to 24, 36 and 48 million passengers in phases if the market grows to that level, with small expansion options. 

Salalah airport will equally see major expansions from its current state with passenger levels going up to one-two million in Phase-1 with options to go up to six million passengers if needs be. The new domestic airports will be designed to have around 500,000 passengers per year each.

The construction of Muscat International Airport (MIA) is the largest civil engineering project in the history of the country. Is everything going according to the plan?

Being the largest civil engineering project in the country, one would expect some deviations to the plan, which is why we have plans in the first place, to measure progress against and make corrections.  The type of contracts that we have are “design and build” so things are actually cooked and eaten by the same person, which is not always easy to coordinate when you have multiple contractors doing the same but it allows the contractor to take total ownership of the project phases.
So there are some delays as one would expect, but we are managing each one of them with whatever means we have available. We are also making ensuring that it does not have a serious knock-on impact on the promised dates of the opening of the airports. So far we are managing quite well and I think the 2014 date is still achievable. If we are delayed it will be a few months, and for a project of this magnitude, that would be an outstanding performance.

The project team is gearing up to start operating the new runway and control tower by the end of next year.  This will allow the project to start working on the existing runway without interrupting the airport operation and prepare for the final opening of the airport with all associated facilities and two runways.

The full opening of the new Muscat International Airport is expected toward the end of 2014 and will start with 12 million passengers per year, but there are options to increase that number in the different phases of the airport development

You recently announced plans to implement a restructuring of the entire civil aviation industry in Oman. Can you give us some insights into your strategy?

At the moment, we are undergoing a total restructuring of the civil aviation authority, with the aim to establish two things. We want to bring the structure as close as possible to international standards, which means that we should be able to implement all the international civil aviation requirements when it comes to safety, security, air transport & economic regulation. So the new structure will have all these fundamental building blocks in place.

The second part is to establish ourselves as an independent authority from civil service and finance which require a lot of policies, manuals and procedures to be in place to govern how PACA conducts its business. 

Outside PACA we need to start setting up the market so that the new airports are fully utilized and really pushed to their maximum commercial utilization. That can only happen by opening up and allowing the private sector to invest more in the civil aviation sector. But that means a lot of work in terms of understanding the market, local demand, conditions in which we open up the sky, interface with international service providers, and so on. That work hasn’t started yet, but I am hoping to do a feasibility study soon to find out exactly the local market requirements and necessary facilitations to open the skies within the existing regulations we have. We have to work hand-in-hand with immigration and tourism in order to understand their demands and how they can best support each other.

What role is PACA going to play in promoting Oman as a tourism and business destination?

All airports ultimately serve the same purpose – to facilitate the movement of passenger, air cargo or mail.  However depending on the geographical location they may have special focus areas that determines their primary function and usage.  MIA is the primary gateway to Oman and has all the functions and facilities expected in an international airport. 

Salalah being more for tourism in the southern region will have more of a tourist flavor and marketing strategy.  However, Salalah airport is also the primary gateway for the Dofar region and as such will have a significant domestic use in addition to Air Cargo due to its proximity to Salalah Port. 

Sohar and Duqm are predominantly Air Cargo focused, although Sohar has a bit more in terms of domestic role because it serves the entire Batinah region. I don’t see Duqm being extensively used for passenger traffic except for the ones traveling specifically for the Duqm city. Ras Al-Had is pure tourism and is well suited to serve all the tourism projects planned by the Ministry of Tourism. I see Ras Al-Had as the Omani equivalent of Sharm-el-Sheikh and need to be marketed as such. Adam is currently earmarked as the location for the Civil Aviation training city (flying academy, aircraft maintenance school, airlines crew training school, etc), and the location is ideal due to the low domestic use, proximity to nearby private airports and land space available for such business.  So, to that end, there is critical interface work that needs to take place between PACA and the different ministries and organizations in Oman to facilitate this vision.

How closely do you cooperate with other regional civil aviation authorities and related international institutions?

In general I can say there is good contact and cooperation with key regional and international civil aviation organizations. Recently I made a quick visit to the United Arab Emirates because the Director General over there underwent a similar change program to the one we are embarking on here.  The visit was intended to appreciate the challenges they faced during the implementation phase of their change program, which I expect we will be facing here too. Putting the boxes together is one thing, driving a comprehensive and wide reaching change program is another and I am fully aware of that.

My recent visit to the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal was an ideal opportunity to network and meet some of my counterparts around the world and exchange contacts. There is also continuous dialogue and interface with the Arab Civil Aviation Commission where I also hold the position of the General Assembly Chair.

What are the priority areas that you are focusing on right now?

The Royal Decree gave PACA the financial and administration independence from the civil service sector and a key priority for us now is to define and establish such independence, set a vision and strategy for PACA so we can put together a credible implementation plan that pull all the different departments toward a common goal.  The restructuring program we are undergoing is one critical step in that direction.  As PACA is also sharing the responsibility with the Ministry of Transport and Communication on the execution of the new airports, a critical priority is to deliver the airports on time and to the quality we promised. 

Of course, no airport is complete without all the supporting services and hence a key priority for PACA is to establish the local requirement on the civil aviation services and facilitations and regulate the same.  We will be embarking on a comprehensive study to establish the services required locally and to establish Oman as an international civil aviation player, number of service providers, timeframe of the availability of such services that meet the plans of the airport construction and  the Ministry of Tourism, a process by which such services will be screened and selected.

What role are you going to play in supporting the growth of the national carrier Oman Air?

With Oman Air the main role we play is ensuring that the bilateral agreements that we sign with other international civil aviation authorities are in line with Oman Air’s aspirational growth plans. We don’t want to be behind their plans, but very much ahead of it, so we open up the path for them to expand their services.  As a regulator, we need to ensure that Oman Air meets all the required international regulations to facilitate their penetration to the international market.
On the personal level, I also sit on the Board of Directors for Oman Air and the Chair of the Executive Committee so I play a direct role in helping Oman Air transform its operation, grow and compete locally and internationally.  There is a direct conflict with my other role as a regulator but it is a conflict I recognize, declare and manage effectively.

Will Oman Air continue to be the single aviation service provider in Oman, with all these expansions and new airports?

It doesn't have to be as the market now is too big and too critical for one service provider to cover it all.  The PACA study will determine the market requirement for a number of aviation services that doesn't currently exist. To name a few, the study will cover the need for Low Cost Carriers to serve the local market and compete internationally, corporate and charter services, executive service, air and ground services, helicopter services and of course potential amphibious services to serve the 1700km of coastal areas.  The opportunities are endless, and the above is only a flavor of the airside services. The landslides are just as big and as important.

What do you attribute this growth to?

Oman Air, as the national carrier, has certainly contributed a lot. The new bilateral agreements that Oman signed in the last few years have also contributed significantly. There is more interest for tourism in the country, so it is expanding. All of the development within the business sector is also helping to bring a lot of foreign workers and investment into the country. Not to forget of course the growing interest of Omanis, and residence, to travel out and explore the world.  I think all these things put together have contributed to that growth.

The existing airport was originally designed for roughly 3.5 million passengers, so we are already well beyond that but we are managing through phased expansions and detailed planning. I expect that by the time we move to the new airport, we will already be close to the phase one targets, which is around 12 million passengers. We will probably have 9-10 million by the time we move, which will give us a little breathing space before starting phase two. It is quite exciting times for the civil aviation business.

Is increasing the number of transit passengers going to be a priority for you in the future?

Most likely. Transit numbers are currently very small, probably half a million, so most of the passengers are coming to or leaving the country (so called point-to-point travelers). This is an area where we need to focus. At the moment we are not doing much, so it represents an opportunity for expansion. Giving MIA’s location, we are a connection point between the East, West and the African continent, so lots of traffic is coming this way.

In the future, ideally we will have more transit numbers than visitors in MIA. There is huge potential, and with that of course we need to provide lots of facilities. If a passenger is going to spend five to eight hours in Muscat, they do not necessarily want to spend that time inside an airport, but if they do, we must ensure they get everything they need for a quality stay.

Certainly within the airport itself there are many things that we should be able to provide for passengers in transit, and to make flight connections as fast and as efficient as possible. The transit business is huge and in Muscat we are just scratching the surface of that opportunity. The same goes for Salalah, which can be a huge transit hub for Africa and East Asia. Those flights don’t need to come to Muscat, and using Salalah would be ideal.

Air cargo handling and warehousing facilities are undergoing massive expansion as part of the airport development program. How will this new capacity boost the logistics industry in Oman?

Cargo is a bit small at the moment. We have got one cargo place here in Muscat, but in the new airport we are constructing a new cargo base that can handle up to 260,000 tons per year, in addition of course to the existing base. That should really set us up quite well to expand Cargo business in Oman.  The same goes for Salalah and other demotic airports.

What are your personal ambitions for PACA?

To establish a credible civil aviation authority that is not only renowned within Oman, but internationally. We want to be recognized for the safety of our airspace, and the quality of the services we provide. It goes without saying that with that, we need to have significant work done on human resource development, and on the culture change from government civil service type of work to small and medium-sized enterprise (SME), semi-independent, and private sector.