For the first time in Oman’s aviation history, the Sultanate has a low-cost airline, appropriatley named ‘SalamAir’ (in Arabic, ‘Salam’ means ‘Peace’ — but it is also used as a general greeting). With its vibrant livery and ambitious plans, the airline is becoming one of the fastest growing low-cost carriers in the Middle East.
I’ve previously written about SalamAir’s advantageous position to assist with the acceleration of Oman’s air travel growth under the leadership of CEO Captain Mohamed Ahmed – an industry veteran with over 30 years of experience, including at other Arab airlines, and an Airbus A320 Captain.
SalamAir has an active fleet of four aircraft, consisting of three A320ceo (classic engine option) and one recently delivered A320neo (new engine option) — all equipped with CFM engines. The low-cost carrier has five more A320neo aircraft on order, and expects to continue taking delivery of these single-aisle jets throughout 2019.
Earlier today, I sat down for a talk with CEO Captain Mohammed Ahmed, where we discussed SalamAir’s future plans at length, including Mr Ahmed’s strategy, regional challenges, oil price, as well as route network performance — (including how some SalamAir flights are consistently maintaining a near-100% load factor).
In future articles, I’ll share more exclusive information from our in-depth conversation — but for now, I’ll primarily focus on SalamAir’s fleet strategy going forward.
While Mr Ahmed told me he’d “like SalamAir to have one single fleet” he added that the Omani carrier will consider introducing a smaller aircraft type into the fleet, “subject to winning more domestic oil field tenders” whereby SalamAir operates charter flights.
Mr Ahmed said, “Domestically, inside Oman, we are operating daily flights to oil fields, and continuing to establish tenders with other oil companies in order to pick up on the domestic traffic.” Oman now has more than 150 oil fields, but many of them rather small, complex (due to the geography of the country) and not as productive as Oman’s Gulf neighbours. However, the Sultanate remains 24th in the global oil production table, and SalamAir flies several oil field charter operations, including a 7 weekly Muscat – Mukhaizna flight.
“If we win more of these oil field charter tenders, and our business plan shows we can save, then we will introduce a regional jet aircraft with around 100-150 seats, like the Airbus A220. We are examining every aircraft, but are sure we do not want a turboprop aircraft, it would need to have jet engines” Mr Ahmed added.
Airbus’ A220 serves the 100-135 seat market, and under the new ownership of Airbus, the aircraft is on an active sales campaign to secure more airline customers.
Mr Ahmed said “We’re speaking to Airbus, but they do have challenges with delivery timelines. There are also other regional aircraft that we are assessing, including a few newcomers. While our previous preference was not to introduce another fleet type — we are now not ruling it out.”
“Proven reliability is also very important to us.” Mr Ahmed added.
When I asked the Head of Customer & Engineering for Airbus A220 program, Rob Dewar about the A220’s reliability in the Middle East, he told me “Our aircraft is made to work well in environments such as the Middle East, and there should be absolutely no doubt about its abilities. We’re confident it will perform for a Gulf customer”
With SalamAir already an Airbus customer, and with five more A320neo’s due for delivery over the coming year, I asked the CEO on his thoughts for SalamAir’s longer-term future growth, once the immediate route network is established. “For anything after the immediate future, we will of course look at the Airbus A321LR.”
The airline-industry veteran spoke with admiration about the A321LR, Airbus’ long-range variant of the A321neo, describing it as a “game changer”, adding “once we fulfil the immediate route network we will look at the A321LR for extended range routes. It’s all route dependent, but we think China is a strong market, especially given it connects well with our existing destinations, including Khartoum, which has a huge demand for travel to and from China.”
Airbus’ A321LR is the largest and heaviest member of the A320 family and can seat up to 240 passengers, while having the ability to fly more than 4,000 nautical miles nonstop. The aircraft would allow SalamAir to fly longer-range routes to key destinations in Africa, Asia, and many parts of Europe.
Mr Ahmed said, “With the A321LR, we would be able to fly to destinations such as those in China, while keeping in line with our A320 family fleet.”
There’s also increased capacity opportunities for SalamAir with the A321LR, as fuselage modifications have allowed for more space for seats inside the cabin. Furthermore, there’s a reinforced landing gear (to support the heavier weight of the jet), and a new rear section — with an ‘Airbus Cabin Flex’ exit-door configuration, in order to maximise cabin space.
However, Mr Ahmed highlighted that increased-capacity aircraft such as the A321R (which has around 60 more seats than SalamAir’s A320neo aircraft) may not be necessary on routes ruled by the number of seats, such as in India — where regulation restrictions are tight on foreign airline capacity.
Towards the end of 2018, SalamAir became the first airline in Oman to take delivery of the Airbus A320neo. Mr Ahmed told me “Entry-into-service was great. The aircraft is a bit unusual because it was originally assembled for a US airline (Frontier), but they did not end up taking it. For this reason, the aircraft still measures weight by ‘pounds’ and we are used to kilograms.” He added: “All of the readings in the flight deck which measure weight, specifically the fuel figures, are in pounds, and our engineers and fuel agents here in the Gulf are only used to kilograms — therefore it’s taken some adapting, including on our load sheets and paperwork.”
I asked Mr Ahmed why Airbus didn’t change the weight measurement prior to delivery, to which he said “Everything was finalised for our delivery, including systems, software, and spare parts, and so while it is the first time in the Gulf to see weight measured in ‘pounds’ on one of our aircraft, we’re adapting for now…until we can change it soon”.
“For me, the beauty of the A320neo is commonality, and the lack of extra training required,” Mr Ahmed said, which echoes many of the CEO’s I have spoken to who have taken delivery of the Airbus A320neo.
“When you fly it, it’s exactly the same, but with a better CFM engine, lower fuel consumption, and reduced noise” — and Mr Ahmed would know, given he flew the first A320neo delivery from Toulouse to Muscat himself, as an A320 Captain.
SalamAir is quickly becoming one of the fastest-growing airlines in the Middle East, and is disrupting its home-market of Oman with new aircraft, lower fares, and interesting fleet intentions going forward. Mr Ahmed is an experienced aviation figure in the Gulf, and his focus seems clear, and well-strategised.
In a future article, I’ll share more of our conversation regarding SalamAir’s upcoming route network announcements, route performance, and the (currently) off-limits country the Omani carrier is working on establishing flights to, as well as the pressures of oil, geo-politics, and an interesting way the airline is helping connect passengers affected by the ‘Gulf Crisis’, a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar.
I’ll aslo be sharing more information regarding the carriers’ future A320neo’s — which you will not want to miss.