Oman Air targets route expansion and launches in-flight connectivity

4 May 2010 by BusinessTraveller

Business Traveller talks to Oman Air about the rollout of its new aircraft and seating, route expansion, and becoming the world’s first airline to offer in-flight mobile and wifi access.

Just over two years ago Business Traveller posted a Tried and Tested review of Oman Air’s service between Muscat and London. At this time the flights were operating to Gatwick airport, using old leased A310 aircraft with no individual IFE. Our writer’s verdict read as follows:

“A very old plane with the worst in-flight entertainment system I have experienced in years, but the staff and service surpassed what I had anticipated, with many aspects provided that I would only have expected in business. The airline will be getting some new Airbus A330s soon (2009-11), so when the IFE issue is resolved, this will be a first-class airline.”

Fast forward to 2010, and the airline has transformed almost beyond recognition. Business Traveller will be printing full reviews of the carrier’s A330-300 economy and business class offerings in our June edition (to subscribe click here), but highlights include fully flat beds in business, an excellent on-demand IFE system in all classes, departures from Heathrow rather than Gatwick, and a world’s first – in-flight mobile phone and wifi internet access (see online news March 2).

Oman Air’s chief commercial officer Barry Brown (pictured below sitting in the carrier’s new economy seating) described reaction to the new product as “phenomenal”. 

“We knew we had to do something different to what the likes of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar down the road were doing. So in terms of product differentiation we’ve gone for ‘space space space’ – aside from Saudi Arabia we’re the largest country in the GCC, and we wanted to recreate that feeling of space on the aircraft [with just six seats in first class, and 20 in business].

“We thought it would maybe take a year to get established and look for the first signs of maturity on the [London-Muscat] route, but it’s happened in four or five months. We launched with the new product last October, and we’ve been running high 80 per cent load factors.”

It’s a far cry from the situation Brown encountered when he joined Oman Air in 2008 (along with CEO Peter Hill, both having worked together at Sri Lankan Airlines), when he referred to the figures on the London Gatwick route as “disastrous”. The transformation began with a switch to London Heathrow in January 2009, followed by the leasing of modern A330 aircraft from Jet Airways, bridging the gap until Oman Air’s own A330s arrived late last year.

The A330-300 serving the London route has a three class configuration, with six first class seats, the first time Oman Air has offered a first class product, and Brown says that while premium demand has been down due to the economic slump, being a relatively small carrier has actually proved an advantage in terms of filling the front of the aircraft.

“We don’t have 150 aircraft to fill – we’ve got five A330s [with a sixth due later this year, and a seventh and last next year], so we’re only talking about 30 seats a day in the front cabin. And our business class cabin [pictured below] has just 20 seats – we’ve given up a lot of real estate in return for a larger seat, but that’s the statement we wanted to make, and one the government wanted to make.”

“We’re having a lot of wealthy passengers joining us from Saudi, from Kuwait, and of course a lot of local Omanis, and then there’s the government who are entitled to fly first class. 

“We’ve not had this offering before, and it’s probably taken the best part of three or four months to persuade people to try us. We had to bang on a lot of doors, but once we got a few onboard, the word of mouth spread. Now it’s quite a regular occurence where I look at the flight loads [for the London-Muscat route] and see six, 20, 180  – full in first, full in business and 20 seats short of full in economy.”

Away from the London route Oman Air launched services to Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, Male (Maldives) and Colombo in the last quarter of 2009, as well as increasing its Bangkok service to daily. Expansion will be even more rapid this year, with a total of eight new destinations – Kuala Lumpur, Ras Al Khaimah and Al Ain all commenced at the start of May, Islamabad and Lahore launch later this month, with Kathmandu and Dar-Es-Salaam in June, and Milan later this year.

The carrier has also hit the headlines recently by introducing mobile phone and wifi internet access on its A330 aircraft – the first time an airline has offered both services in-flight. Provided by Onair, the service is currently available on two of the new aircraft, and is due to be up and running on all of the A330s by the summer.

“Passengers expect a lot of from Middle Eastern carriers, but who’d have thought ‘little old Oman Air’ would come out with a world first,” said Brown. “Utilisation has been far above our expectations, and far above those of Onair – it’s new for both of us, so we’re still analysing how much data is being downloaded.”

Brown said that the majority of calls are being made in the last hour before arrival, presumably to arrange airport pickups and advise friends and relatives of arrival times. He added that there had been no complaints from passengers in terms of increased noise, but that the carrier had measures in place to deal with any issues.

“We ask everyone to put their phone to silent – not everyone will, but the crew have been trained to come up and ask politely if necessary. If it does become a problem we’ll block inbound calls overnight. You have to remember that phones have been available in seats for twenty years, we’re just enabling inbound calls as well.”

So what’s next for Oman’s national carrier? New dedicated business and first class lounges are due to be unveiled at Muscat airport in July, with features including butler service in first class, dining on demand, and limousine transfers to the aircraft. The business class facility will be able to hold up to 250 passengers, with decor blending “very modern architecture with true Omani flavour”.

These new lounges are an interim measure (albeit a fairly longterm one) until the first phase of the airport’s redevelopment opens in 2014 (the same year Oman Air is due to start taking delivery of its six Boeing Dreamliner aircraft), doubling capacity from six to 12 million passengers per year.

The carrier is also “looking at various possibilities” for getting its own lounge at Heathrow T3 (it currently shares the SAS London Lounge), and has struck a deal with Emirates to allow its first class passengers to use the rival’s premium lounge at the terminal.

“Yes it’s with the competition, but most of our first class passengers have been flying Emirates in the past anyway. It’s slightly more investment for us, but it’s worth it for the front end travellers.”

It all adds up to substantial investment at a time when many carriers are cutting back, but again Brown says this is working in the carrier’s favour.

“Could we have picked a worse time to launch our international expansion? Probably. We’ve been able to go up to airports and caterers, where airlines are saying to them – ‘how much will you give me off my meals if we take out an olive’, and instead we’re saying ‘how much if you give us double that caviar?’. People are saying “here’s an airline which wants to do what airlines were doing 30 years ago”, and we’ve been able to come in and lock in some five years arrangements at very, very attractive rates.”

“Yields are down, no question, but they’re coming back, and we’ve told the government that we’ll be profitable in five years.”

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Report by Mark Caswell

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