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Something in the Air at Salam

Posted 15 October 2018 · Add Comment

Just a year into its life as one of the Gulf’s newest low-cost carriers, Oman’s SalamAir has plans for major expansions of both its fleet and route network.

Oman’s first low-cost carrier (LCC) SalamAir is on the move. The airline plans to have five Airbus A320s in service by the end of this year and, by the time this issue of Arabian Aerospace appears, should have announced an order for five more aircraft – probably A320neos.
The airline plans to add four aircraft a year to its fleet and to have 20 in service in the next five years.
“The good news is that Oman is putting a lot of emphasis into the tourism sector and has a vision of diversifying its income,” said SalamAir CEO, Captain Mohamed Ahmed. “We have a fantastic new airport [at Muscat, plus] a couple of domestic airports they have revamped. We would like to utilise that to bring in more tourists.”
This combination of a steadily-growing fleet and Oman’s bid to tap into the tourism market will translate into a considerable expansion of the carrier’s route network: “What we’re doing right now is scanning the market around us within five hours flying time, the typical range of an A320,” said Ahmed, who was appointed CEO in November 2017 from his previous position as LCC Air Arabia’s group director of operations & maintenance.
“We will have the Gulf Cooperation Council market, which of course is very important to us. We will be adding places like Kuwait and Bahrain in the near future. We’ve started Shiraz, which is a very popular destination around here for medical and general tourism.”
Mashhad is planned in for services by the end of the year, followed by Tehran. The Iranian destinations are testimony to the cordial relations that exist between Oman and Iran, partly due to historical reasons and partly because Oman has succeeded in creating a profile for itself as an honest broker between Iran and the states on the western shores of the Gulf.
Oman Air also has flights across the Straits of Hormuz, but “we think there’s room for more”, said Ahmed. “We will be expanding in Iran and within two years I reckon we will have at least four destinations there.”
In early June, SalamAir opened up new services to Baku and Tbilisi, the capitals of Azerbaijan and Georgia respectively. The Indian sub-continent is also of great interest to SalamAir and flights to Dhaka are underway, while any available destinations in India would be of interest and talks are underway with the Indian authorities. Also in SalamAir’s sights are destinations that have not previously been served from Oman, such as Khartoum and Alexandria.
In its first year of operation, SalamAir carried more than 500,000 passengers: “This year, I reckon we will carry more than 1 million.” Load factors vary due to seasonality, but the average load has been 70%, with that figure rising. Oman’s main domestic route between the capital, Muscat and the country’s second city, Salalah, close to the Yemeni border, last year saw load factors exceeding 95% - a level generally only achieved by major Western LCCs such as Ireland’s Ryanair and UK-based easyJet.
Like most LCCs, SalamAir augments its ticket income with ancillary revenues on ietms such as food and drink, but this is an area where the company can do better as its infrastructure matures. There is an educational process to be followed, to make potential passengers who have not used LCCs before aware of the various ‘add-ons’ that they have the option of including with their basic fare.
For example, Oman Air has a fixed price on its Muscat-Salalah route and SalamAir is trying to change the perception that prices are static, especially as local passengers tend to book tickets at the last minute. Ahmed and his colleagues are trying to educate new customers that they will get cheaper tickets if they book early.
Oman Air’s former CEO Paul Gregorowitsch talked of the national carrier co-operating, rather than competing, with SalamAir and this policy runs both ways. “That’s the way we would like to do it. We would like to complement Oman Air, although they have a totally different business model – theirs is a more premium product.” Despite this, “We meet on a very regular basis and talk to each other on any issues that crop up. We would like to synchronise our efforts with them.”
Ahmed believes that SalamAir’s arrival has increased the total market for air travel in Oman: “Yesterday I was told by the Salalah airport authorities that their ranking in the category of airports serving less than 2 million passengers a year has gone from number 11 to number four; that’s entirely because of our activities.
“Low-cost carriers create the demand and encourage more people to travel more often. That has been very obvious with some of the destinations that Oman Airways doesn’t fly to, such as Multan [in Pakistan] and Shiraz. Shiraz has seen load factors above 90%.”
SalamAir operates its existing A320s in a single-class, 174-seat configuration with a seat pitch of 30in – 31in. If the company does decide to go with the A320neo for its fleet expansion, the European manufacturer’s new Flex cabin and new-generation slim Recaro seats will give passengers the feeling of an extra 1in of space between seat rows, he added.
A further factor in SalamAir’s success has been the opening of Muscat International Airport’s new terminal. Oman Air had complained for some years that the old terminal’s limited capacity was hampering its operations and SalamAir quickly ran into the same problems. Although it had a design capacity of 8 million passengers a year, by 2016 it was handling 12 million.
“We were restricted by the old airport,” said Ahmed. “We couldn’t add more flights, we couldn’t expand.” The opening of the new terminal earlier this year, with its 12 million passenger annual capacity had “definitely made a big difference.
“It’s a state-of-the-art, amazing building. It’s something we’ve been waiting for, for a long time. The feedback we get from passengers is amazing. The design is very rooted in the culture of Oman but, at the same time, it’s very modern and easy to use.” Meanwhile, the old terminal will be refurbished and brought back into use and three new phases of the airport will be constructed as demand materialises, allowing an eventual rise to 48 million passengers.
In its efforts to maximise the number of Omani nationals in its workforce (currently around 63%), SalamAir earlier this year advertised for Omani women to apply for cabin crew positions. It is still relatively unusual for women from the Gulf nations to take up such posts, mainly because of the male-dominated nature of local society.
“Yes, this was unusual,” agreed Ahmed. “Internally, a lot of our management thought that this is not going to work, but we thought we would give it a try. It’s been very successful.”
The first batch of cabin crew graduated in May, a second group is going through the training course and the company is recruiting a third contingent.
The airline has been at pains to reassure the community that it is aware of the sensitivities regarding this type of employment.
“As a home-grown airline, we understand the cultural reservations that may impact women pursuing cabin crew careers,” said Salam Al Kindi, director of corporate support.
“We have therefore adapted the traditional role to suit these cultural sensitivities and facilitate the contribution of women in this burgeoning sector. For instance, our flexible selection criteria welcomed both experienced cabin crew, as well as fresh graduates, to apply for the opportunity.
“Additionally, we have also adapted the female cabin crew attire to provide our flight attendants with the choice to wear the hijab as part of their official uniform.”
Another major reservation with local families is female family members staying away from home, especially in foreign countries, for extended periods. However, SalamAir’s short to medium-haul flights mean that female crew members are not required to stay outside Oman for extended periods.
 

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