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Oman Airports Management Company (OAMC) CEO, Sheikh Aimen Al Hosni, talks to Joe Bates about the growth and development of the country’s airport system.

The Gulf is one of the hottest places on earth for airport development and Oman is no exception to the rule, with the country set to follow the unveiling of a new terminal at Salalah Airport with the opening of effectively a new gateway in Muscat in 2018.

In the planning for over a decade, the new $1.8 billion terminal at Muscat International Airport will be akin to opening a new airport as the existing terminal will close overnight and operations will resume the next day in a new state-of-the art complex on the other side of the airfield.

Sheikh Aimen Al Hosni, CEO of Oman Airports Management Company (OAMC), has no doubt that the opening of the new 580,000sqm terminal will prove transformational for the airport in terms of its facilities and capabilities.

He reveals that the terminal will raise the current capacity of Muscat International Airport (MCT) to up to 20 million passengers per annum.

The terminal will initially be equipped with 29 boarding bridges, 96 check-in desks, more than 7,000sqm of retail and F&B facilities, its own 90-room airside hotel and some of the most advanced technology on the planet as OAMC wants the airport to be operational efficient and passenger friendly.

And, crucially, it gives OAMC a little more time to fine-tune its master plan and work out how and when to begin the next phase of MCT’s expansion programme.

“The new terminal will make a massive difference to everyone,” enthuses Al Hosni. “Its size means that the footprint for each passenger will be huge. The facilities will be a lot better. The IT systems will be top end and more productive. And as an airport we will have more of a grip over operations than we do today.

“To put that in perspective, today, we are using a terminal that is 44 years old. Rising passenger demand means that the forecourt to the terminal, check-in area and gates are congested. Although there have been some upgrades, which include the addition of a new pier, we just don’t have enough lounges to meet demand.

“Things needed to improve, and they will with the opening of the new terminal. People will love it, it will be unrecognisable from the existing terminal and take Muscat International Airport to another level in terms of capabilities and performance.”

A new 97-metre high ATC tower and more than 30,000sqm of ancillary buildings are also being built for the phase one opening of the new terminal. They include an 8,000-vehicle capacity car park, aircraft hangars and new inflight catering kitchens.

MCT’s two runways have both been widened and extended to 4,000m x 60m to allow them to handle aircraft up to the size of the A380, which can be accommodated at two gates in the new terminal.

The new terminal will certainly help OAMC in its vision for Oman’s airports to be ranked among the top 20 in the world by 2020 by concentrating on service quality, customer experience, and operational excellence.

And MCT is not alone in being upgraded in the Sultanate, as Salalah International Airport in southern Oman’s Dhofar province recently opened its own new terminal and Duqm Airport will soon follow.


Transforming Salalah Airport

Opened two years ago, the new 65,638sqm terminal at Salalah has proved instrumental in boosting traffic at the airport, which has grown from 841,000 passengers in 2014 to 1.2 million in 2016.

Its facilities, which include eight boarding bridges and 24 check-in desks, are currently the most modern in Oman and have helped OAMC attract a number of new airlines to the airport and significantly improve its passenger satisfaction levels.

So much so that in Q3 2017, Salalah International Airport (SLL) was the highest ranked airport in the Middle East and eighth in the world in the under 2mppa size category in ACI’s ASQ survey.

And the gateway is believed to be close to receiving a prestigious 5-star rating from SKYTRAX, which is awarded to airports that achieve the “highest overall quality performance” and recognises the provision of “excellent facilities for customers”.

It is very much Oman’s second gateway and feeds traffic to Muscat, so it should come as no surprise to learn that domestic services currently account for 70% of the activity at the airport.

Salalah does, however, have a growing international network courtesy of airlines such as flydubai (Dubai), Qatar Airways (Doha), Air India Express (Trivandrum), Pakistan International Airlines (Karachi) and Air Arabia (Sharjah).

Like Muscat, Salalah Airport is a home base for Omani national flag carrier, Oman Air, and Omani low-cost carrier, SalamAir, which launched operations earlier this year.


Traffic growth

A record 12 million passengers (+16.6%) passed through Muscat International Airport in 2016, while an all time high of 1.2 million (+17%) used Salalah International Airport.

And things are set to get even better this year with Muscat and Salalah experiencing year-on-year passenger growth of 18% and 24% respectively, leading Al Hosni to predict that MCT will welcome 13.5 million passengers and SLL 1.5 million by year end.

“It has been our best ever year. In fact, the airports are among the fastest growing in the Middle East, according to ACI’s latest traffic figures,” says Al Hosni.

Oman’s other two airports, Duqm and Suhar are tiny even compared to Salalah, but they, too, are enjoying traffic growth.

A total of 25,000 passengers (+40%) passed through Duqm Airport in the first nine months of 2017, while Suhar, which is located in Oman’s north east Al Batinah region and only started to operate as an international airport in July, handled around 30,000 passengers in its first three months of operations.

“Suhar is a very big and nice story,” notes Al Hosni. “It was handling zero passengers in June and is now handling around 10,000 passengers a month. New low-cost carrier, SalamAir, has really helped drive domestic traffic, as has Air Arabia, which operates flights to Sharjah, and Qatar Airways to Doha.

“Qatar introduced three weekly flights to Suhar a few months ago and now operates daily services to Doha. It has been a great success.”

He admits that the addition of Qatar Airways is due to circumstance – current sanctions against Qatar have forced the airline to ground aircraft – but is optimistic that the popularity of the new Suhar route will persuade the carrier to keep the service after the political crisis is over.

“They have committed to double daily services from next year, so Qatar Airways are there to stay,” enthuses Al Hosni, who notes that the airline is utilising A319 and A320 aircraft on the route.

Suhar is an industrial city, home to Oman’s biggest seaport and is located in the most populated region of the country, says Al Hosni, and the introduction of Qatar Airways services, in particular, mean that locals no longer have to drive two hours to Dubai or Muscat to catch international flights across the globe.

So has the Qatar service between Suhar and Doha had an impact on passenger numbers at Muscat? “Not really, as 60% of passengers on the service are new travellers that we weren’t getting before as they drove to Dubai or Sharjah,” says Al Hosni. “In this respect, I think we have plugged the leak to neighbouring markets.”


Route development

With hubs such as Abu Dhabi (Etihad), Doha (Qatar) and Dubai (Emirates) on its doorstep, it would be easy to believe that Muscat would struggle in comparison to attract airlines, but Al Hosni says that is not the case, as Oman’s capital city tends to be an end destination for travellers as opposed to a transfer point.

Al Hosni calls Oman the ‘Switzerland of the GCC’ because it is “quiet, safe and secure” and remains neutral in most political storms.

He adds that although unlike Switzerland his country doesn’t have snow, it does have mountains as well as desert, beaches, history and cultural attractions, which make it a little different to its neighbours and a tourist attraction in its own right.

Having said that, Oman Air’s decision to build up its hub and spoke network means that transfer traffic currently accounts for around 30% of the operations at Muscat International Airport.

New routes launched from MCT this year by Oman Air and SalamAir alone include Dubai, Guangzhou, Jeddah, Karachi, Kuala Lumpur, Medinah and Nairobi, while frequencies have been increased on a number of routes that include Hyderabad, Jakarta and Mumbai.

The new additions take the number of non-stop destinations served from Muscat to 55 in 27 countries across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

Its 28 scheduled airlines and sizeable international route network means that international traffic accounts for 85% of the traffic at MCT and domestic operations for around 15%.

People power

Al Hosni is a big fan of people, recognising the important, and often underestimated role airport staff play in ensuring that passengers enjoy a comfortable, smooth and pleasant experience at all of Oman’s gateways.

Indeed, he goes as far as to say that the outstanding efforts of airport staff is one of the reasons why MCT has been able to successfully operate beyond its design capacity for so long.

“There was only so much renovation work and patching up we could do to the existing terminal until the new terminal opened, so for the last three years in particular we really had to bet on our people coming through for us, and they did,” he says.

“People matter, and are always important, because you can build state-of-the-art facilities and huge infrastructure, but who manages it? It’s the people, so you really need to make sure that your people are ready and capable of managing these facilities.

“People talk a lot about making their customers happy, and rightly so, but I think we should be saying make your staff happy, because you will get better results if you do, as they will make your customers even happier.”

He reveals that the prize for OAMC’s ‘Employee of the Month’ isn’t cash or a gift, but the chance to spend a full-day with him and experience first hand what it is like to run the country’s biggest airport system.

“I would encourage all airport CEOs to do the same,” says Al Hosni, who used the example of one employee who sat with him from 7.30am until 5pm in the afternoon as an example of why the initiative works.

“He was with me throughout the day and never left my side. He was even with me when I called my wife,” he said. “He was exposed to everything, so when I asked him what he had learned at the end of the day, he said I had a hectic job, and he didn’t want it!

“He will now go back to the workplace and be an ambassador for the company by telling his colleagues about how things are working and that they could get there by being strong and working hard.”

Al Hosni’s commitment to creating a happy workforce and a customer service focused culture at OAMC ensures that he meets his 50 most senior managers (the Falcon Team) every quarter and all staff at least once a year when he tells them more about how the company is faring and its plans for the future.

Al Hosni also uses an internal newsletter to communicate with all staff once a month and has set up an email address for employees to contact him directly with any queries or concerns.

Training is ongoing and, once a year, Al Hosni joins his senior managers for a ‘team building’ day where they leave the airport and take part in an activity that is designed to be fun and bring them closer together.

He shows me a video of the management team hiking in the mountains and judging by the smiles on everyone’s faces, the initiative works. I don’t see any women in the footage, though, and he quickly tells me that this is something that he is keen to rectify.

“Around 84% of our staff are under 40. They are young, ambitious and are always challenging me and keeping me on my toes,” says Al Hosni. “Now I want to add more women to our management teams.”

He points out that today there are six women in OAMC’s Falcon Team as opposed to just one when he became CEO two-and-a-half years ago.

“There will be more in the future, but there is no such thing as a free lunch. Candidates have to work hard and prove themselves first and a management role will follow,” he says. “Gender equality is one of my top priorities.”


What next for Muscat?

With passenger numbers in Oman expected to rise by 40% by 2019, OAMC is more than aware of the need to implement best practices and policies across its airport network to ensure that they are able to keep pace with demand.

And, for MCT, this will involve future expansion phases to the soon-to-open new terminal to raise its capacity to 24mppa and then 36mppa and finally 48mppa.

Indeed, based on average annual growth of 10% per annum, passenger numbers at MCT will exceed the new terminal’s 20mppa capacity by 2022, so the only question really is when the first planned expansion phase will begin.

Al Hosni, understandably, won’t be drawn on possible timings for the new terminal’s expansion, but interestingly reveals that OAMC has decided not to bulldoze the existing terminal building as soon as the new one opens as having a back up facility, should it ever be required, is better than not having one.

“We have no plans to use the existing terminal again after the new one opens, but keeping it for now makes good business sense because it builds some flexibility into our future development plans,” comments Al Hosni.

International expansion

Al Hosni says that he is currently 100% focused on the successful opening of the new terminal at Muscat, but admits that business development is always on his mind, and that one possible option for the company in the future might be to look outside of Oman for new opportunities.

And at this stage he is ruling nothing in or out, so management contracts, consultancy work and investing in other airports, either through acquiring an equity stake or directly operating them through a concession, are all on the table.

He says: “Going beyond the borders of Oman is the next logical step for the company. This could mean investing in and/or operating and maintaining airports outside of Oman.

“There are many airports around us with development projects that need funding and OAMC as a company has the finance, expertise and experience to help them.

“Similarly, there are a few airports out there that are not as well run as Oman’s and could benefit from our know-how in managing, operating and developing airports.”

With so such going on and even bigger ambitions for the future, these are exciting times for OAMC, Muscat International Airport and indeed all of Oman’s gateways.


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