New Muscat Airport: Aviation in Oman has come a long way, say old-timers
March 13, 2018 | 10:06 PM
by Rahul Das / [email protected]
The narrow runway of Bait al Falaj Airport -Photo courtesy Brett Langevad

Muscat: In the early 70’s, it was a small and scrappy airstrip saddled between the mountains of Muscat.

In seven days’ time, it will take Oman on its journey to the future.

Passengers travelling to and from Oman back then recount closing their eyes ahead of take-off - but on March 20 the world will open its eyes to Oman’s potential.

The future is here

“Besides robots, there will be new screens and more people to assist passengers at the new airport,” a senior Oman Airports Management Company (OAMC) official said.

The new Muscat International Airport will have 40 aerial bridges, 149 elevators, close to 5,000 parking spaces, a four-star hotel, swimming pools, and retail outlets covering an area of 12,000sq.m.

Thanks to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s guiding hand, it will take the travelling experience to a new level.

The Bait al Falaj Airport, dating back to 1929, was nothing but a dirt track landing strip, mainly put to use for military purposes. It was the main airport prior to the opening of Seeb International Airport in 1973.

With the new airport set to open in Seeb next Tuesday, Omanis and expatriates living in Oman recall their journey from the humble roots of aviation at the country’s first airport.

Recalling her first encounter with the oldest airport in Oman, State Council Member Nashiah Al Kharusi said, “I flew with Gulf Air in April of 1972 and was on my way back to Muscat from Dubai. It was a simple airport. I remember it being between mountains, made of old, rough bricks. Big planes could not land at the airport. So, I had to change flights to get a smaller plane from Kuwait to Abu Dhabi, to Ajman, to Dubai and then to Muscat.”

“The runway was small and nearly all planes needed to break hard in order to stop. It took me nearly an hour-and-a-half to get from the airport in MBD to Al Nahda hospital. There were no roads whatsoever,” she said.

Pakistani expat Jal Julian Kaikobad, who has been living in Oman for the last 47 years, said, “I came to Oman with my mother and siblings on a ship from Dubai in 1970. At the time, the ship used a dock a mile away at Muttrah as there were no ports. From there, a small dhow used the bring passengers and luggage.”

“A few months later, I took my first flight out from Bait al Falaj in MBD area in Ruwi. There was only a small airport. The big aircraft could not land and only propeller aircraft used to fly,” he added.

Some passengers who have used the oldest airport in Oman said, “We used to start praying as soon as the door on the airplane with two giant propellers used to shut as we knew we would soon be flying between the mountains of Oman. We were scared as the plane was small, very loud, and shook a lot.”

The runway was a thin strip of tarmac in the middle of the desert in Ruwi. Next to it was one of the area’s most visible landmarks.

“It was additionally being utilised by the Petroleum Development Oman Company for its aircraft flying between Muscat and oil exploration fields in Fahud, Qarn Al Alam, and other locations,” according to an Oman Airports official.

Bait al Falaj Airport was the first airport in Oman, fitted with limited equipment and facilities to serve as a civilian airport. It had a communication centre, a customs office, asphalt parking for aircraft, and a maintenance shed. With these modest facilities, the airport was able to play a small part in the advancement of civil aviation in Oman.

Then in the 60s, Gulf Air started using the airport for its DC3 aircraft. With the advent of the 70s, Pakistan and British Airlines commenced operations in Oman with semi-regular passenger flights. Although the airport was mainly used for military purposes, in addition to a few civilian flights, take-offs and landings were fraught with dangers due to the narrow landing strip and high mountains and hills around the airport area.

“The Bait al Falaj airport is now just a memory. The site of the airfield is now the centre of modern commercial and residential buildings in MBD,” according to an OAMC official.

In 2008, the name of Seeb airport, which had replaced Bait al Falaj airport, was changed to Muscat International Airport.

Meanwhile, Omanis were amazed to see the new terminal, scheduled to open next week. “The first time I saw the new airport, I was shocked. It is a big change and improvement. What I loved is seeing so many locals working at the airport,” Al Kharusi said.

“Earlier, people rarely used to travel. I have seen first-hand the changes that the Sultanate has gone through from the 70s to this day. There is no comparison between the old and the new airport. It is a change from primitive to modern,” she added.

According to the Ministry of Transport (MOT), the new passenger building will have two main gates to accommodate heavy aircraft such as A380 and B747 at the new passenger terminal. “There will be 10 belts for delivery of luggage, of which two will be for domestic flights with a capacity of 5,200 bags per hour and a length of 7km,” the Ministry of Transport stated.

A fully loaded A380 can weigh as much as 1.2 million pounds at take-off and can carry more than 850 passengers, according to experts.

The total area of the passengers building is 580,000sq.m. and it comprises three suites, each with three levels, and the central area, with three levels, which links all three suites. “There are three main entrances leading to these levels, in addition to arrival and departure VIP lounges,” the MOT stated.

Meanwhile, national carrier Oman Air is undergoing a fleet and network expansion programme. It has just received it second new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft as part of 30-plane deal with the American aviation giant.

As part of the airline’s strategic vision, the company aims to operate up to 62 aircraft and expand to some 60 destinations by 2022.

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