What role does PACA play in the overall development of Oman’s aviation sector?

AL-AUFI: PACA (Public Authority for Civil Aviation) is a regulator. We try to align our standards and regulations with international standards and regulations. We facilitate the implementation of these standards with the operators locally. We monitor for compliance. In terms of growing the sector, we play a major role in signing bi-lateral agreements and opening up additional destinations for the local carriers. Today, Oman Air is the only operator but we are hoping that in the future we will grow to have more than one operator.

In the recent WEF Global Competitiveness Report, Oman received a ranking of 40th with regards to quality of air transport infrastructure. What new initiatives are being implemented in order to improve the overall quality of air transport infrastructure here in Oman? Furthermore, what actions are being taken in order to increase Oman’s overall aviation capacity and capabilities?

AL-AUFI: We are focusing on both the physical assets and modernizing all of the airports. We are building many new airports, not only in Muscat and Salalah but also throughout the country. We already have airports in the regional cities. All of the airports we are constructing at the moment will have state of the art equipment. We are also working with Oman Air with regards to growing their fleet. We are looking to open up the industry so that the private sector can come in and start providing additional services that are currently not available from the local carrier. We are also looking into restructuring the entire aviation sector so that we can create a holding company that oversees all of the major assets related to the airports. Geographically, we are in a unique position. We are almost the last connection between the East and West. Our airspace is one of the most congested in the area. I believe that by developing the infrastructure on the ground we should be able to start marketing Muscat International and Salalah as primary hubs for flights connecting to the rest of the world. I think we are in a unique position and we need to make the best use of it.

The new Muscat International Airport is considered to be one of the most ambitious projects in Oman and operations are set to take off in 2014. How is progress being met to date? What implications will this project have on the downstream segment of Oman’s aviation sector?

AL-AUFI: At the moment, it is progressing slower than what we had hoped for. We split the development of the airport into two phases. The first phase is opening up the new runway and tower and incorporating the new Air Traffic Management system. Hopefully by the end of 2014, the terminal along with the rest of the utility buildings will be completed. We will then start full operations of the airport towards the end of 2014 or early 2015. It depends on how long it will take us to do the final commissioning, including the operational readiness of all the services. We have to make sure that all of the systems are working properly and all of the checks are done. I am optimistic. I think we will approach 2014 having hit excellent milestones for the airport. We have to show that we are progressing with the development of the airport. I think at this moment we are absolutely focused on quality. There is no point of finishing the airport in 2014 if there are still issues that need to be addressed. That will not happen. As a result, quality is a top priority for us.

The aviation sector will benefit greatly when this project is completed. We will have better facilities and services to offer to all aviation customers. This in turn will facilitate establishing new services. Furthermore, there are a lot of locations in Oman that we cannot reach with normal aircraft so we need to start establishing different types of aviation. I think the sector is growing and changing rapidly. There are many ambitious plans to make full use of every aviation service available. However, critical to developing this sector is establishing clear and more transparent guidelines and processes, which is what PACA will be working on as an immediate priority.

How competitive is the aviation sector throughout the Middle East? How successful has Oman been at attracting global carriers and signing new air transport agreements with other international airports outside of the country?

AL-AUFI: The competition is very tough. We are in a cut-throat industry. Our neighbors are growing in massive numbers. I believe Oman Air, as a national carrier, will find it very difficult to penetrate certain markets. We need to start marketing Muscat and Salalah as transportation hubs. This will give Oman Air the privilege of being on the ground ready to serve many destinations. Oman Air has been growing its business. Our airports have been growing at roughly 15% per year. We cannot enter new markets until Oman Air is ready to start flying to new destinations and that will not happen until 2015-2016. That is when they will start receiving their new fleet of aircraft. The alternative for Oman Air is to start getting into code sharing. This is happening with a number of airlines. I think at the moment our focus is geared towards improving the capacity of existing destinations. When Oman Air receives its new fleet it will help open up different sectors. North America is definitely on the horizon but we need larger aircraft to reach those types of destinations.

The GCC has been experiencing an increase in air traffic density and number of airliners throughout the region over the past few years.  What are the major challenges that Oman is currently facing with regards to air traffic management? What initiatives are being taken in order to maximize Oman’s overall air traffic efficiency?

AL-AUFI: One of our main challenges is that our airspace is very congested. We are in a unique position. The UAE is pushing to get as many aircraft as they can through our airspace. Contrary, we have the Indian continent that has not been able to cater, catch, and receive all of these aircraft. We are in a bit of a dilemma with regards to vertical and horizontal separation. At the moment, we are trying to open up additional sectors so that we can separate aircraft flying from either direction. This will help ease the congestion in our airspace. Today, we have five airspace sectors. Next year, we are going to open up two additional sectors. The new system that we are installing will allow us to grow on top of this. We are looking into spreading the airspace as wide as we can. There will be a lot of demand for airspace and we are considering many options to help solve the issue.

How successful has Oman been in marketing its airports in the global arena? What actions are being taken to attract new companies and further FDI in the aviation sector?

AL-AUFI: I think we need to do more work with regards to marketing. We have not been able to market the airports until now because we are in the process of building the new ones. I think the Ministry of Tourism has been very active and aggressive in terms of marketing the country. Oman Airports Management Company (OAMC) is starting to market the airports. We use every opportunity available to talk about the airports. We want to highlight the different opportunities that the airports are providing. We also want to market the quality of services that we have in our airports.