On The Wings Of Technology

A Conversation With Paul Gregorowitsch, Chief Executive Officer, Oman Air

Oman Air, the national carrier of the Sultanate of Oman, is well known for its resilient market presence, as well as its professionalism, punctuality and service excellence. Ensuring that its customers are always comfortable and have a memorable experience is top of mind for Oman Air’s leadership and workforce.

As such, one of its most appealing attributes is its modern aircraft interiors that include a first-class mini suite with the industry’s longest lie-flat seats and direct aisle access. In addition, its Airbus A330 business class offers direct aisle access, generous storage space, and the latest amenities and technology.

Economy-class guests enjoy comfortable seating with adjustable head and leg rests and liberal leg and elbow room. Its cabins also sport high-tech inflight entertainment systems featuring individual seatback screens with audio and video on-demand and live satellite. In addition, Oman Air has pioneered both mobile phone and internet connectivity in all three cabins of its aircraft.

While its inflight offering is solid, the airline doesn’t focus solely on this aspect of the customer experience. The airport experience is equally important. Oman Air has recently opened first- and business-class lounges at its Muscat International Airport hub. The lounges are chock-full of customer-centric amenities such as elegant, tranquil relaxation areas, complimentary spa treatments and à la carte dining. Moreover, the airline offers premium check-in facilities and a first-class-lounge-to-aircraft limousine service.

While the airline has celebrated many grand achievements during its two-and-a-half decades of service, it hasn’t always been a smooth ride amid the increasingly complex challenges facing the travel and transportation industries.

In a recent interview with Ascend, Oman Air CEO Paul Gregorowitsch discussed some of the bigger challenges the airline has faced, how it has continued to forge ahead through turbulent times to come out as a stronger industry player, and some of the strategies and attributes that have shaped the airline and helped set it up for a healthy future.

Question: During some of the most difficult times in the airline industry, it is said that Oman Air has always had the strength to renew itself despite the industry’s challenges. What specifically does this mean? What are some instances that made it necessary for the airline to reinvent itself?

Answer: The airline industry is a uniquely challenging environment. Apparently minor economic, political or commercial fluctuations can have a significant impact on our operations. So Oman Air has developed a strategy that balances a clear commitment to achieving its goals with the flexibility necessary to respond to and manage change. As a result, we have been able to respond positively to political changes in our region, oil price changes and extreme weather events, thereby minimizing any impact on our customers. An important element of that flexibility is the experience and professionalism of our network-planning team, which constantly monitors all of our markets for changes that could affect our operations.

Q: What role does technology and the airline’s employees play in this type of transformation initiative?

A: Technology is now central to airline operations, and Oman Air has, in many cases, led the way. Electronic flight bags, computerized flight-simulator training, online ordering systems and, of course, communications are just some of the technologies that have become an integral part of the way in which our operational colleagues work. Meanwhile, online booking platforms, web check-in, mobile apps, inflight entertainment and onboard connectivity are the other important factors that have transformed the passenger experience.

Oman Air places great importance on its customers’ end-to-end journey, including the airport experience. At its Muscat International Airport hub, for example, the airline recently opened first- and business-class lounges that are stocked with customer-centric amenities such as elegant, tranquil relaxation areas, complimentary spa treatments and à la carte dining.

Q: How does your airline, its stakeholders and its employees benefit from this type of initiative?

A: Technology connects us all, both at work and in our leisure time — including when we travel. And technology’s impact on Oman Air as a business has been profound.

The introduction of information, communications, management, monitoring and reporting systems means that we are able to work more quickly, more effectively and more efficiently. Oman Air has recently made huge investments in new aircraft and new routes. At the same time, we are committed to achieve a financial break-even (operating level) by the end of 2017. Being able to deliver improvements in every area of our work, while keeping our cost base to a minimum, is vital. Technology enables us to achieve this.

For customers, Oman Air’s increased use of technology in the course of delivering its products and services has also brought substantial benefits for our customers. Online booking and web check-in offer increased convenience, as do the mobile apps we have launched over the last year. These enable customers to find out the latest news and offers from Oman Air, make bookings, manage those bookings and keep up-to-date on their flight status. Onboard connectivity, which Oman Air pioneered in 2010, enables customers to stay in touch with families, friends and colleagues on the ground, update social media, use a wide range of web applications and personalize their inflight entertainment. In fact, our mobile phone and Wi-Fi connectivity, which is available on all Oman Air’s long-haul flights, enables customers to take more control over their passenger experience and make their flights even more enjoyable.

Q: Oman Air has played a major role in turning Muscat into an important traffic hub in the Middle East, supporting the commercial, industrial and tourism sectors. What role, specifically, has your airline played in the economic wellbeing of Muscat and the growth of the aforementioned sectors?

A: An important part of Oman Air’s mission, as the national carrier of the Sultanate of Oman, has always been to support the economic and social well-being of our nation. In fact, according to academic study, the indirect economic and social benefits of Oman Air’s operations to the country amounted to 440 million Omani Rial (US$1.1 billion) in 2015 alone. We are one of Oman’s largest employers and perhaps the country’s most visible international expression of Omani culture and hospitality. Nearly two-thirds of our global workforce comprises Omani employees, and we operate a vibrant and intensive corporate social responsibility program, which benefits the country’s social, educational, cultural and sporting sectors.

Operationally, we have actively supported the economic development of areas such as Salalah, Sohar and Duqm. We have also boosted Oman’s role as a cargo hub by developing our air-sea cargo and freight trucking businesses. Furthermore, we are committed to working closely with Oman’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) sector and have entered into a range of partnerships with Omani companies.

In addition, the expansion of Oman’s airport sector is seen as central to the country’s economic development. Oman Air has worked closely with Oman Airports Management Company (OAMC) and the Public Authority for Civil Aviation (PACA) to ensure that the new airports at Muscat, Salalah, Duqm, Sohar, Ras Al Hadd and Adam each achieve their full potential.

Q: Your airline has experienced significant growth during its 23 years of service. In which areas has the airline achieved the most growth? What do you believe are the main contributors to this level of growth?

A: Oman Air’s fleet and network have expanded enormously over the years. The quality of our services has never been higher, and we have established ourselves at the forefront of innovation. As a result, we now have a larger fleet, fly to more destinations, carry more passengers and enjoy a larger turnover now than at any previous time in Oman Air’s history.

A number of factors have contributed to this. The quality of our products and services is internationally recognized. International travelers are more aware than ever of the awe-inspiring beauty of Oman, its culture of warm hospitality and its superb infrastructure. The commitment of the Government of the Sultanate of Oman to the expansion and commercial success of Oman Air has been, and continues to be, truly outstanding. On behalf of all my colleagues, I would like to express our respect and appreciation for the Government’s support. Our achievements could not have been attained, however, without the inspirational and continuing support of our loyal and valued customers.

Last year, the indirect economic and social benefits of Oman Air’s operations to Oman amounted to 440 million Omani Rial (US$1.1 billion). The airline is one of the country’s largest employers and is possibly its most visible international representation of Omani culture and hospitality.

Q: One of the more descriptive phrases in your corporate profile is “On the wings of technology.” What specifically does this mean? In which areas does technology contribute the most to your airline’s current and long-term success?

A: As I have mentioned, technology is integral to every aspect of Oman Air’s work. However, the slogan on our corporate profile refers primarily to the way in which we have been able to use technology to improve the travel experience of our passengers. Technology has a positive impact on every aspect of their journey, from making reservations to arriving at the chosen destination. Not only does Oman Air utilize that technology, but in a number of cases we have been at the cutting edge of its development — onboard mobile phone and Wi-Fi connectivity is a good example of that.

Q: In what ways has your airline contributed to technological advancements that not only benefit your airline but that bring value to the airline industry as a whole?

A: By pioneering complete onboard connectivity from 2010, Oman Air showed the airline industry not only that the technology worked, but also that it enhanced the passenger experience and that there was demand for such a service. At the time, there were many sceptics, but it seemed obvious to us that customers would welcome the same sort of connectivity on the skies as they were able to access on the ground. After all, why should normal life be suspended once you board an aircraft? We were proved to be correct. There is now greater demand than ever for inflight connectivity and, having been the first airline in the world to introduce it, it is satisfying to see the rest of the industry following our ‘vapor trail.’

Q: Oman Air uses several Sabre solutions. Which solutions bring the most value to your airline?

A: All of Oman Air’s Sabre solutions deliver value for the company. I am reluctant to single out any one specific solution, but I can give an example of one of the Sabre systems that we use. In 2015, Oman Air signed an agreement with Sabre to extend its passenger services system, SabreSonic Customer Sales and Service. Under this agreement, Sabre supplies additional technology that enhances the shopping experience for customers. It also creates more meaningful and profitable interactions with passengers throughout their journeys.

We have used SabreSonic for 13 years prior to that agreement, and the shopping solutions we opted for — Interline Branded Fares and Dynamic Rewards — have enabled us to simplify our customers’ shopping experience, drive sales and optimize partnership revenue streams. Sabre’s highly advanced technology supports our vision for offering customers the best possible experience.

Q: Aside from the solutions you use, how does your airline benefit from its partnership with Sabre?

A: Sabre really understands the airline business, and we work closely with the company. Their expertise has a positive impact for both our employees — who are able to work faster and more effectively — and our customers, whose first experience of Oman Air is often through an attractive, reliable and easy-to-use Sabre booking platform.

Q: Your airline has partnerships with a number of other airlines, including Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, KLM, Royal Jordanian, SriLankan Airlines, Thai, Saudia and Turkish Airlines. Why are these partnerships essential to the growth of Oman Air and it’s longevity in the aviation space?

A: Codeshares help us expand the range of choice and convenience that we offer our customers, without having to invest in expensive new aircraft, landing slots, etc. They are also a great way to test the viability of new markets with a view to future expansion. Oman Air currently has no plans to enter into an alliance. However, the expansion of choice and convenience offered by codeshares draws more people into our network. It offers them increased opportunities to experience both Oman Air’s superb products and services and the beautiful and authentic destination of Oman.

Q: You also partner with German Railway Service. What is the basis of this partnership?

A: Oman Air currently flies to two destinations in Germany: Frankfurt and Munich. But we want to ensure that the Oman Air passenger experience is open to as many people as possible, wherever they live. We also want to ensure that our customers who visit Germany can visit as much as possible of this great country. So we have entered into a codeshare agreement with Deutsche Bahn, which allows customers to book an Oman Air ticket from a range of German cities to any point within Oman Air’s network, and from throughout our network to those same locations in Germany. The codeshare operates in the same way as with an airline and, in addition to benefitting both Oman Air and Deutsche Bahn, provides a welcome expansion of choice for our customers.

Q: What are some of your airline’s traditions that put you in a unique position in the airline industry and set you apart from your main competitors?

A: Oman Air is a unique airline. It is the national carrier of the Sultanate and an international expression of the country’s culture and heritage. Central to Omani culture is the concept of warm and welcoming hospitality for travelers. We are pleased and proud that hospitality is expressed to our customers at every step of their journey, and especially onboard our aircraft. In fact, our staff service has won awards at the ‘Oscars’ of passenger aviation, the Skytrax World Airline Awards. When this unique, genuine and authentic hospitality is joined by our outstanding aircraft interiors, delicious inflight dining and up-to-the-minute technology, it is clear that Oman Air has an exceptional and compelling offering.

Q: In addition to being a Skytrax four-star airline, your airline has earned several Skytrax awards in recent years, including Best Business Class Seat in the World, Service Excellence in the Middle East and Best Staff Service in the Middle East. What do you believe contributes the most to these accolades?

A: Oman Air has indeed won a host of accolades at the Skytrax awards, as well as scores of other awards for the high quality of our passenger experience, network, use of technology and corporate social responsibility programs. They recognize Oman Air’s constant search for improvement and commitment to the very highest quality standards in everything we do. They also acknowledge the tireless efforts of all our staff to go the extra mile for our customers. We are delighted to accept every award we win, but our primary focus is on our customers.

Q: What goals have you set for the next three to five years that will give your airline a strong foothold in the markets it serves?

A: Oman Air is currently engaged in an ambitious program of fleet and network expansion. This was launched in 2014, at which point our fleet size stood at 30 aircraft. By 2020, we anticipate operating 70 aircraft — 45 narrow-body and 25 wide-body — to around 75 destinations. We have already taken delivery of many excellent Boeing 737s, as well as four superb Boeing 787 Dreamliners. More of both aircraft types will follow over the next few years. The increased size of our fleet is already allowing us to launch new destinations — such as Mashhad, Manila, Jakarta and Goa — and increase frequencies on many of our established routes. We recently unveiled a second daily frequency to London, and all eleven of our destinations in India enjoy between seven and 14 services per week. We are also increasing the convenience of Oman Air’s connections at our home airport in Muscat, and this work will continue for the foreseeable future.

Q: Where do you see Oman Air in 10 years?

A: Within appreciably less than 10 years, Oman Air will be perceived as a major global carrier of the highest quality, a sustainable and profitable business, and an important contributor to a vibrant Omani economy. The foundations for this success are now well established, but much work remains to be done. I look forward to working together with our dedicated workforce to ensure that Oman Air takes its rightful place at the very highest levels of the airline industry.