Oman plans to raise $6bn to finance aviation sector growth

Exclusive: Impact on Oman Air revenues from 737 Max grounding "very minimal," Oman Aviation Group CEO says

An Oman Air plane takes off at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Delores Johnson / The National
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Oman Aviation Group, which oversees the sultanate’s national carrier and airports, plans to raise about $6 billion (Dh22bn) to finance the country's aviation sector expansion as it seeks to develop non-oil sectors.

Oman Aviation put out a request for proposals to local and international banks, expecting to secure the first tranche by June 2020, its chief executive Mustafa Al-Hinai told The National in an interview on Tuesday. The $6bn will be staggered in tranches over the next 10 years to fund the expansion of the country's airports and its national carrier.

"We're looking at different financial tools and evaluating which we’re going for," Mr Al-Hinai said, confirming bonds, sukuk and loans were also under consideration. "All options are open for us."

The plan comes after S&P Global Ratings revised the outlook on Oman to negative from stable while affirming its debt at BB, two levels below investment grade, as the government grapples with a fiscal deficit. Established in February 2018, Oman Aviation comprises of Oman Air, Oman Airports and Oman Aviation Services.

"Our plan is to build new cities around our airport related to logistics, aviation, commerce and hospitality," Mr Al-Hinai said. "Most of this funding will cover this type of development, which is going to promote the growth of our airline."

He said the long-term financing plan is part of Oman Aviation's strategy to operate without government subsidies.

"We need to restructure our operating assets right now to be much more efficient," he said. "We are totally independent from government books, so accordingly we trying to finance ourselves."

A year ago Oman Airport's chief executive Aimen Al Hosni told The National it is considering the sale of a partial stake in the state-owned airports management company by 2020 but that the government has yet to make a decision on whether to proceed with an initial public offering (IPO).

Oman Airports is targeting expansion to 40 million passengers by 2030 from 18 million passengers in 2018 Mr Al-Hinai said.

Oman Air, a unit of Oman Aviation Group, has 20 Boeing 737 Maxs and 4 Boeing 787s yet to be delivered, according to Boeing's website, which it would need to fund.

Oman Air in March grounded its fleet of five Boeing 737 Maxs and deferred another three Maxs due for delivery by mid-2019 following two deadly crashes involving the model.

To cope with the shortfall, the carrier deployed four of its Embraer E-175 jets and increased frequencies on some routes, which resulted on "very minimal" impact on revenues, said Mr Al-Hinai, without providing figures.

Prior to the unfolding Max issues, some of the remaining 737 Max narrowbodies on order were converted to Boeing  787-9 widebodies while others were deferred for delivery in 2022 following the restructuring of loss-making Oman Air. He did not provide a breakdown of converted or deferred jets.

"We’ve restructured airline and feel we have to be much more sustainable in terms of our growth," he said. "By deferring those Max aircraft, the overall impact won’t be big-time significant to us."

Oman Air was mulling a new order for Boeing 787 jets or Airbus A350s before 2023 to replace its A330s. It already operates 787 Dreamliners.

Oman, the largest Arab oil producer outside Opec, is pushing to grow its tourism sector after a drop in crude prices in 2014 hit the country’s budget.

“Oman’s aviation sector is an enabler for tourism and logistics,” Mr Al-Hinai said. The country identified about 25 markets to attract more visitors, including India, China, Russia, Germany, UK, Switzerland and GCC.