Take-off of the Sultanate

I’m writing from Muscat, the capital city of the idyllic Sultanate of Oman — a Gulf country with unbeatable scenery, clear-water beaches, mountains, and the famous Omani hospitality. After a superb ‘Oman Airports Awards’ ceremony (where I was honoured to be present live on stage) which recognised individuals, retailers and airline partners who are contributing to the growth of the country’s aviation industry, it was time to take an in-depth look around the country’s largest aviation investment: the Muscat Airport.

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While oil remains of great importance to Oman’s overall GDP, aviation is sharing centre stage when it comes to Oman’s investment outlook. By the end of this year, IATA has forecast Oman’s aviation would have grown 40% over a three-year period — a statistic both raising eyebrows and attracting the attention of Oman’s Gulf competitors in the UAE, and Qatar.

The road leading to the terminal reminds me of Doha’s Hamad International Airport, and also Guangzhou Airport. It curves to the left towards a glistening glass terminal that’s been in the making for over a decade. Its exterior design reflects the individuality of Oman… but the reality is that this airport is among a cluster of hub-airports in the Gulf, all aiming to shuttle passengers around their world through their respective Middle Eastern gateways. From where I stand outside the doors of the terminal, Dubai is less than a four-hour drive away. Doha, an hour away by plane.

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But if Dubai and Doha’s airports were the popular kids in class year after year, Muscat Airport is the student that kept quiet through all but graduated with an A.

The terminal was planned at a time where oil was booming, and Oman was profiting. The terminal isn’t as bright as I had expected, but its palm trees, crystal-clean floor and surfaces, and open-planned design create an airy feeling of calmness. Different design pieces enrich the terminal’s interiors — a wave wall, reflective of the wadis and sand dunes of Oman sits next to dedicated lounges for passengers requiring special assistance. “It’s to make the entire journey easier for all passengers,” Muscat Airport’s Terminal Duty Manager, Ashraf tells me.

In the departure area, Ashraf shows me, how the airport experience really is about ensuring a unique experience for all passengers. Multiple lounges are equipped with plush armchairs, sofa seating and more. The unique aspect of these lounges? They’re for all passengers, including those flying Economy Class, or low-cost airlines. “Our passengers can’t believe they can just relax in there for free — this is quite unique to Muscat,” Ashraf says.

We proceed for an exclusive view from above… the very top of the new Air Traffic Control tower. The view is uniquely Omani. I say this because, on a 360-degree balcony of the tower, I have a view of the Sea of Oman on one side, and the mountains behind the old airport area on the other. Nestled in-between, Muscat’s “hub to the rest of the world” airport, all underneath the warm afternoon Middle Eastern sun which shrouds everything with its orange glow. Standing at the top of the tower, I can see long-haul jets approaching the terminal, with several ready to drop passengers into the transit area ahead of their onward flight connections to Asia, Europe and Africa.

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Looking into the distance, a group of brand new jets sit idle and grounded. It’s the fleet of Oman Air’s Boeing 737 MAX jets, which are currently part of a worldwide ban on this aircraft type in what is the largest Boeing crisis in almost a decade.

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Back down to Earth and inside the terminal, I’m shown the extensive premium areas for passengers travelling in Business Class, First Class, or those who are simply willing to pay for the facility. Stunning interiors adorn the Oman Air and Prime Class lounges — with the latter including runway-view bedrooms, all included as part of the stay.

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Upstairs, an Aerotel Hotel offers bedrooms for travellers in transit.“Our occupancy is great, we are often almost full,” the general manager tells me, showing me the premises that would definitely be a pleasant sight for sore, tired traveller eyes.

Muscat Airport has a swimming pool, spa area and sauna also located in the airside hotel, available for all passengers to pay and use, even if only for a 20-minute swim before boarding.

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After a few hours in the terminal, it’s clear the airport has all it needs to thrive. Now, the focus must shift to boosting passenger numbers, and ensuring the infrastructure is utilised at an optimum level. The ongoing expansion of Oman’s airports (including a new 5-star terminal in Salalah, and a new Duqm Airport) entails a target of 40mn passengers by 2030, from the 17.8mn it saw in 2018. “With all due respect to our Gulf neighbours, we want to be better than their airports,” Ashraf tells me.

This week it’s been confirmed that Oman Aviation Group is seeking to raise up to $6bn to finance the expansion of state-owned Oman Air — the flag carrier, and predominant airline user of this new state of the art facility. Part of the $6bn will also be used to pay off part of the vast Oman Airports expansion that has taken place over the last few years.

I shared impressions from my trip across social media this week (Twitter @AlexInAir, Instagram @alexlhr) and users have praised their experience through the new terminal Some highlighted key points that will improve the experience, such as ensuring the large number of immigration counters are staffed in order to reduce the length of the queue for international travellers exiting into Oman. Others said that while they think Muscat Airport is an excellent platform for airlines, the flag carrier, Oman Air, isn’t doing its justice yet with a relatively limited route network when compared with destinations served by its Gulf competitors, Qatar Airways and Emirates.

Final Thought

If there’s one certainty in the new development of Muscat Airport — the city is now firmly on the aviation-stopover map, and that’s without taking into account the hundreds of thousands of travellers flocking to Oman as an increasingly popular destination hotspot.

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