Oman carrier riding to success on the winds of change
A new Omani charter airline, Salalah Air, aims to open up the country to air tourism, the first step in creating a network of flights both domestically and throughout the region. Alan Dron reports.
Since the accession of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said in 1970, Oman has undergone a remarkable transformation.
Having overcome the early and potentially deadly threat of a communist-inspired insurgency from over the border in Yemen, the country has slowly but steadily prospered.
Previously almost medieval in its backwardness, its emergence into the modern world has been a remarkable success story.
The national carrier, Oman Air, is expanding rapidly and has carved out a niche for itself in a market dominated by the ‘big three’ airlines in Qatar and the UAE.
But, for all its success, said Sam Owen, CEO of start-up Salalah Air, it has not provided the country’s second city with the level of air services desired by its population.
“Basically, there’s no service in the south of the country,” said Owen, a British expatriate who has lived in Oman for decades and is a former wing commander (Lt-Col) in the Royal Air Force of Oman.
“Oman Air has expanded very nicely around the world, but not in Oman. The people of Salalah want more flights to Muscat, they want to connect with the rest of the world.”
Many of the factors that would support a new airline in Salalah are in place: there has been considerable investment in tourism, with hotels and an improved road infrastructure. The city’s airport has benefited from a new terminal and runway. And the port has been greatly expanded and is increasingly on the itineraries of visiting cruise liners.
Additionally, the area around Salalah has one attraction that is almost irresistible to many residents of the Gulf. As temperatures start to reach a peak of 45C or more throughout the peninsula in June, the northerly edge of the Indian Ocean monsoon hits the southwest coast of Oman. Its effect is to bring clouds, temperatures of around 25C, mist and drizzle from June to the start of September. This is the khareef and visitors flock to the region for the novelty.
“The jebel turns green, you’ve got cows and camels in the same field and if it’s a good season there are even a few waterfalls in the wadis,” said Owen. The same conditions also prevail in southeast Yemen and parts of Sudan, but neither country is in any condition to take advantage of the phenomenon.
Oman Air lays on additional flights to Salalah to cater for the influx of tourists and more than 90,000 visitors passed through the airport during the latest khareef season, but Owen believes that much more can be done.
Until recently, Oman did not allow the establishment of airlines apart from the national carrier. That changed in January 2016 with the request for proposals to set up a new low-cost carrier (LCC). Owen and his team applied, but the successful bid came from another state-run enterprise – the Muscat National Development and Investment Company – and Salam Air is due to take to the air in the third week of December. Ironically, its initial destination will be Salalah.
Having lost out on the LCC contract, Owen turned his attention to a new venture. Starting small, with a handful of light aircraft, Salalah Air intends to step up initially to 19-seater regional aircraft, then to jets by 2018. At the time of writing, it was closing in on its air operator’s certificate (AOC), with the aim of having it in place by the end of the year. Postholders were being recruited over the autumn and manuals submitted for approval by the Public Authority for Civil Aviation (PACA), the country’s aviation regulator.
Funded mainly by a locally based family, with additional money coming from Oman’s banks, Salalah Air plans to start operations with four GippsAero GA8 Airvans. The Australian-built light aircraft operates with a single pilot and up to seven passengers.
“We looked at the Cessna Caravan, but it’s an expensive aircraft,” said Owen. “An Airvan is $900,000, it’s rugged and very cheap to operate.”
Initially, two aircraft will be based in Muscat and two in Salalah, with the target market being the tourism industry, both foreign and domestic. “We have five airports in Oman, but we also have around 40 unpaved ex-air force strips that were used for public support-type services by Short Skyvans. A lot of them are in very good tourist destinations and what would be a four- or five-hour drive by car takes 20 minutes by air.”
Owen hopes to start services with the Airvans in January 2017, at around the same time as introducing a Dornier 228 regional turboprop. Swiss manufacturer RUAG is being extremely helpful. “We have one lined up, which would be a wet lease from RUAG itself, to get us going. We need the support of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) at the moment for maintenance, etc.
“We will explore second-hand aircraft initially, to keep our costs down, although we’re in negotiations with RUAG to buy new aircraft.”
One of the attractions of an aircraft such as the Dornier 228 is that it is rugged and has the potential to be converted to carry cargo or parachutists. Owen sees both the 228 and the Airvans being used for roles such as parachuting at weekends, when they are not required for passenger services.
The Airvans will also be used by a new flying club when not required by the airline: “Any aircraft we have, we have to use for as many things as possible,” he said.
Among other avenues being explored to add revenue streams is the erection of a semi-permanent hangar at Salalah. This would be larger than needed for Salalah Air itself, to give the company the opportunity to offer hangarage to business jet operators who fly into the airport
The next stage in Salalah Air’s development will be the introduction of jet equipment – initially leased 37-seat Embraer 135s – before moving on to a larger type, such as the Embraer 190, which typically seats 94-114 passengers, depending on internal configuration. Owen hopes to introduce the 135 in January 2018.
“We’ll probably start off with the 135, as the population of Salalah is small, just 400,000. It’s a tried and tested aircraft and is economical.” The 135 would allow Salalah Air to extend its routes to longer sectors within Oman, such as Salalah-Khasab and Salalah-Masirah, as well as to other Gulf destinations, while the 190 has the range to fly as far as Zanzibar, off the East African coast. The island was once an Omani possession and many residents there still have Omani heritage.
“We’ve done the route analysis [for Zanzibar]. We can be fairly competitive compared to Oman Air’s fare structure,” said Owen, who believes that adding the island to the company’s route structure will give it the option of offering tourists two-centre holidays.
Like RUAG, Embraer has been extremely helpful in providing advice on subjects such as route analysis, he added.
Although Oman Air has been slow to provide services from Salalah, the new airline hopes to team with the national carrier, meeting disembarking tourists and either flying them on to another destination or arranging car hire and hotel bookings: “We want it to be a one-stop travel shop. Ultimately, we would look at having a codeshare with Oman Air.”
Salalah Air has taken as its emblem the Arabian leopard. Owen will hope that his company’s progress is as sure-footed as that of the big cat.