This autumn Oman Air will signal its long-haul ambitions with the launch of new routes from Muscat to Paris, Colombo and Male. It will do so with brand new two-class A330-200 aircraft, fitted with 20 fully flat business class seats (for more details on the seat, click here).
The carrier will also add Frankfurt to its network, and this route, along with the existing London-Muscat service, which switched from Gatwick to Heathrow in January, will be plied with three-class A330-300s from the end of October.
The aircraft will feature a new first class product, the first time Oman Air has offered the premium cabin on its flights. Details of the seat are under wraps until its official launch in mid-August, although chief commercial officer Barry Brown revealed to Business Traveller that there would be only six seats in the cabin.
“We had to make a point of difference [from the other Middle East carriers],” Brown said. “You’ve got Emirates, which is already a success story, and Qatar and Etihad, which are success stories forming. They are all going after fifth- and sixth-freedom passengers*, turning their home bases into a hub and taking traffic through there.
“We decided there was no room for another carrier of that size, so our point of differentiation will be our service quality onboard – lots of space, and individual attention. In fact, a representative from one of the airlines I’ve mentioned was at the launch of our business class seat in Berlin, and he said: ‘Ah, you have first class.” I said: ‘Yes we do, but you’re looking at our business class seat.’”
The new aircraft will provide not only a competitive premium offering but will bring consistency to the carrier’s use of aircraft on the London-Muscat service, a route Brown referred to as “the jewel in the crown of Oman Air”. The airline had been operating old A310s on the route, which Brown admitted were “not up to par against our competition”. These have been replaced by interim two-class A330s leased from Jet Airways, which will in turn be superceded by Oman’s own A330-300s when they are delivered this autumn.
“With Gatwick and an A310 product, we struggled,” Brown said. “But that has changed – we’ve beefed up our commercial activities, and by changing to Heathrow and with an A330 we’re now starting to run full cabins, but with depressed yields as fares have come down.”
The new aircraft will be accompanied by new business and first class lounges at Muscat airport, due to open in January next year. In the long term a new terminal and runway is being built, the first phase of which is due to be completed at the end of 2012, but ahead of that Brown said the lounges would be “state of the art and luxuriously appointed”, with facilities including massage rooms, quiet areas, dining facilities and business centres.
“We want the high level of service to transcend from VIP check in, through the terminal, into the lounges, and ultimately on to the aircraft itself,” Brown said. “We’re using Performer [a company that trains staff for five-star hotels] as we want it to be like a butler service in both of the new lounges.”
Oman Air will continue to share lounge facilities at Heathrow, although Brown said the carrier had “raised its hands quite high” should space become available at Terminal 3, where the airline has just been confirmed to stay long term.
He added that challenging the other Gulf carriers as a Middle East hub was not a focus.
“The government’s vision is for us to be a point-to-point carrier, and predominantly that’s what we’re looking for,” Brown said. “So it’s about identifying the times when Omanis want to travel overseas, and looking for overseas patrons who want a reasonable time to leave their homes to arrive in Oman. Predominantly, we will offer late-afternoon departures from Oman with late-afternoon/evening arrivals in Europe, and evening departures from Europe arriving here the next morning.
“Because of natural fleet rotation, there will be passengers going beyond, although it’s not our major focus. We’ve got ten cities in India, we’ve also got Bangkok, and this year we’re launching the Maldives and Sri Lanka.”
Brown admitted that the global economic downturn had presented a challenge, particularly with large carriers such as Emirates operating in the region. “There’s no question the financial crunch has had an impact on us,” he said. “The bigger carriers (and predominantly Emirates) operate wide-bodied aircraft into places such as the subcontinent and India. Whereas previously they have been mainly looking for fifth- and sixth-freedom traffic* to go through their hubs, because that traffic has dried up they are now taking more point-to-point traffic.
“That’s having an impact on our services because we operate 737s into these areas. When the bigger guys start to hurt with their through traffic, they attack the point-to-point, the yields come down, and they’ve got more seats to offer, so we’re really weighing up on almost a daily basis now what yields we accept and whether it’s worthwhile carrying the traffic at some of the rates that are around.”
Brown remained optimistic about launching premium products during a depressed market. “There is still discretionary dollar spending around – corporate traffic has slowed by nearly 50 per cent, but the upper end leisure traffic in the premium cabins is still riding quite high, and that’s our target market,” he said.
“There’s definitely still a place for first class. People want the best in life, and if there is a first class cabin with a good product, they will pay a premium for it. The corporate market is going to be a little tougher – it’s going to take a lot longer to bounce back to the heady days of early 2008 and before that, but the upper leisure market is still alive and well, and as we’ll only have six first class seats, it’s not like we’ll have to fill 20 seats on every flight.”
Business Traveller will have more details and images of Oman Air’s first class product in August. Visit oman-air.com for more information.
Report by Mark Caswell
* Fifth freedom – the right to carry passengers from one’s own country to a second country, and from that country to a third country, and so on.
Sixth freedom – the right to carry passengers from a second country to a third country by stopping in one’s own country.