Thursday, January 16, 2014

Trip Report: Oman Air, Lahore to Cairo via Muscat (December 2014)

Trip Report: Oman Air, Lahore to Cairo via Muscat
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I was very interested in trying Oman Air.  Even though they are based in the Middle East, they have not had the growth as the big 3 ME airlines but have focused more on steady growth. I have previously flown with them before to Kuala Lumpur and had a good experience so decided to try them again.  Booking a flight on Oman Air is simple and easy as everything is available online.  I booked my December trip in October over the internet while I was sitting in America and later received an electronic confirmation of my booking.   

The flight was scheduled to depart LHE at 8:20am and check-in was required 2 hours prior to departure (web check-in for Lahore was not available).  As Lahore has become an increasingly important destination for Oman Air (it recently increased its frequency to daily flights), check-in was a breeze with dedicated check-in counters in the international terminal (one for business and 2 for economy) and I received my boarding pass for both flights.  When we arrived at the gate, we noticed the plane was not at the gate but parked to the side (all of Oman Air’s flights have a turnaround time of 2 hours or less); apparently we would have to take a bus to the airplane (unusual for international flights at Lahore).  Boarding commenced at 7:30am and in no particular order passengers lined up to present their boarding pass and get on the bus.  The bus brought us to one of Oman Air’s newer and biggest planes, an Airbus A332, with a 2-4-2 layout and each seat fitted with personal IFEs, a headrest, and footrest.  The bus could only carry 20 – 30 people at a time to an airplane that could hold over 200 and with a flight 80% full, thus resulting in a delayed departure; however not many passengers noticed the delay since the IFE was immediately available (unusual as most airlines make you wait until you have climbed into the air before turning on the IFE).  Oman Air’s IFE is very well stocked with movies, TV shows, games, and music from all over the world and in a variety of languages (English, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Telegu, and Arabic).  Internet is also available, for a small fee, once above a certain altitude.

With a flying time of 3hours (3:05), the in-flight service started almost immediately as we reached our cruising altitude.  The international cabin crew, who spoke a multitude of languages, started offering breakfast to the passengers.  In custom with the Islamic nation, all meals on Oman Air are halal and none include any pork products.  We were offered a breakfast choice of either a Western or Indian dish (the Indian dish was vegetarian catering to Oman Air’s heavy traffic and clientele from South India).  I choose the Western dish which consisted of an omelet with mushrooms in it and on the side, potatoes, bread, fruit, and water.  The food wasn’t the best in the world – the omelet was bland, the mushrooms were not fully cooked, and the potatoes as well as were bland and not fully cooked.  I was travelling with family, one of whom also ordered the same meal and theirs was also undercooked.  Coffee and tea were promptly served and about 1 hour prior to touchdown our trays were cleared away, which gave the passengers time to continue to enjoy the IFE or the in-flight magazine (with an option for duty free).   We landed in Muscat about 15-20 minutes behind schedule, but as almost everyone had a lengthy connection in Muscat many passengers did not mind the delay. 

We had a 3-hour layover in Muscat International which gave us a good chance to explore both the old and new sections of the airport.  The older section of the airport has 2 levels – the ground floor houses gates 1 – 10 while the second floor houses the duty free shop (small), an ithar boutique, as well as the business class lounge.  The newer section of the airport also has a similar layout, but the second floor houses food options along with bigger (and more comfortable) seating options.  The food options are limited and are restricted to either Western or South Indian.  There are no bridges at the airport, so all planes are parked and passengers must take buses to and from the terminal.  The airport takes this into consideration when boarding a flight so requires passengers to be at the gate 1 hour prior to departure.  
Our flight to Cairo was scheduled to depart at 13:40 but at 12:00 we were told to head towards the gate.  After presenting our boarding passes, passengers were asked to gather in the waiting area and wait to board the buses.  The buses brought us to our awaiting plane, which was a Boeing 738 in a 3-3 layout and was a lot older, smaller, and did not have any of the amenities as the plane from Lahore; this was disconcerting since the flight time was almost 5 hours (4:40).  We pushed back a bit behind schedule, but this was somewhat expected as the flight was completely full (and everyone had multiple hand bags).  As soon as we reached a safe altitude, the flight attendants started the in-flight service of lunch and again the options were to choose either a Western or Indian dish.  This time I choose the Indian dish which consisted of rice, lentils, curried vegetables, bread, achar, and desert, and again the quality and taste of the food left much to be desired as it was completely bland and looked like (and tasted like) it had been cooked and sitting for 3 days; it was completely unappetizing.  The food was followed up with tea and coffee, and after about an hour the trays were cleared away.  This left the passengers with over 2.5 hours left in the flight time with no IFE and no movie/TV shown on the main screen (the main screen was showing the flying route map).  The seats were also extremely uncomfortable and had no leg room (a problem for this 6’1 passenger).  After an uncomfortable 5 hours, the plane finally landed in Cairo and we deplaned and were bused to Cairo International.

This was not the first time I had flown Oman Air.  I first flew Oman Air in 2011 from Lahore to Kuala Lumpur (via Muscat for which Oman Air does provide a 24-hour layover at no extra costs) and encountered new planes, excellent food, and excellent service and this is why I choose to fly Oman Air again in 2012; however I did not experience the same Oman Air.  The cabin crew on both flights, while international, were not gracious nor helpful to a clientele which needed help to find their seats (example: on the flight from Lahore, the flight crew did not speak nor understand the national language of Urdu while a majority of the passengers only spoke that language; this led to people sitting in wrong seats and lot of miscommunication and visible frustration from both the passengers and flight attendants).  Also, the food this time was appalling and unappetizing (on the way back, we made sure to rely on food in either Cairo or Muscat International and not rely on Oman Air).  Finally, the plane on the longest leg of the journey from Muscat to Cairo was uncomfortable and made for a very unpleasant journey.   

amenity kit with socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, eyeshades, and earplugs
Oman Air brands itself as ‘the new wings of Oman’ and a lot has changed for Oman Air. Oman Air used to be part of the Gulf Air network, but it branched out in 1993 and started its own airline.  In March of 2007, Oman Air went through a refocus and rebranding which put the airline mostly under government ownership and moved the airline into a new direction.  The airline added new planes, revamped its livery, and added destinations.  It is continuing on its quest to become a major player in the Middle East market, albeit a smaller and more focused (the longest flights are either to Europe or to Malaysia) player than its neighbors Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar; but in its expansion it seems to have lost the attention to the details.  I choose to fly Oman Air again based on my great experience in 2011, but given that the service on my return flight paralleled what I encountered on the departure I am not sure I would choose Oman Air again.  Oman Air has thrived in markets that are lower cost, and where national airlines have let down passengers (Pakistan International and Air India) and for that it continues to draw passengers but if it does not keep up with a good level of service, will passengers continue to fly its wings?

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