After months of political wrangling and counter allegations, as the clock turned one minute past midnight this morning Indian infrastructure giant GMR took the reins of Male’ International Airport as part of an overhaul it claims will help “increase the brand value” of the Maldives.
In a consortium with Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB), GMR says it will kick start a 180 day programme to try and improve service, efficiency and profitability of the site ahead of an US$511m expansion project that includes the construction of a new airport terminal by 2014.
The airport consortium, which saw off competition from a number of rival bids to win a long-standing contract to privatise the running of the country’s central transport hub, made a point of trying to offset concerns about the intention of foreign ownership and its potential impact on Maldivian workers.
“The airport belongs to the people of the Maldives,” said Kiran Kumar Grandhi, Business Chairman of Airports for the GMR Group at a function to commemorate the new management structure. “This consortium hopes to bring the best of technology and architecture and service to the airport.”
A coalition of opposition political parties formed an alliance back in June designed to try and protest against the deal on the grounds of nationalistic interests that included mps from the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), Jumhooree Party (JP) and the People’s Alliance (PA).
However, speaking during today’s handover ceremony on Hulhule’ Island, Mahmood Razee, Minister of Economic Development and a Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) member, claimed that the privatisation of the airport is aimed to directly benefit Maldivians as well as foreign travellers.
“It [the airport] belongs to all of us, to all Maldivians,” he said.
Razee stressed that the government would therefore continue to work with the shareholders of the airport consortium even under “difficult circumstances” such as parliamentary debate and legal wrangling. The Minister of Economic Development added that he views privatisation across the nation’s transport networks and economy as vital for future development.
“We have worked with the private sector,” he added. “We will continue to work with the private sector.”
The comments were echoed by President Mohamed Nasheed who said that the levels of requirement investment required at the airport, which he claimed could be called “the Bucket International Airport”, were substantial.
According to figures given by the president, at least US$300m would have been needed for the development from a government budget that he said was already stretched spending Rf1 billion on existing loans.
As the urgent need to develop the airport was “an undisputed truth” accepted by all, President Nasheed continued, vowing that the government “will not let anyone obstruct the country’s development.”
DRP Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali told Minivan News that a coalition of political parties formed in opposition to the GMR airport deal remained committed to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) focusing on legal recourse to try and prevent the privatisation agreement.
Despite the handover already having taken place this morning, the opposition leader said that the coalition of political parties hasn’t yet “exhausted legal avenues” related to their opposition of the privatisation.
“We simply believe the deal is not in our national or security interests,” Thasmeen said. “With the privatisation of other [existing or soon to be] international airports in the north and south of the country, the state will not have an airport under its control.”
From a stand-alone DRP position, Thasmeen said his party was not strictly against privatisation, but the party would judge any new business propositions put forward by government on a case-by-case basis.
Debate over the issue of privatisation has raged for many months for and against allowing privatisation since GMR and MAHB were first contracted to oversee the airport expansion project back in June.
Deputy Leader of the DRP, Umar Naseer, told Minivan News on June 28 that ” if [the operators] allowed it, an Israeli flight can come and stop over after bombing Arab countries.”
The government has alleged that opposition to the airport deal stems from the “vested interests” of certain MPs, several of whom it arrested following the resignation of cabinet on June 29 in protest against the “scorched earth politics” of the opposition-majority parliament.
Initial 180-day plan
Beyond possible ongoing political and legal discourse, Andrew Harrison, new CEO of GMR Malé International Airport, pointed to greater efficiency in the day-to-day service of the airport as a key focus for the first 180 days of management.
As part of this programme, Harrison announced that an expansion of capacity at the airport was immediately required to allow for more flights to be handled simultaneously. In addition to customer handling capacity, a number of new x-ray scanners and service counters are also set to be provided over the period to speed up waiting times during check in and departure, he claimed.
Beyond operational commitments, Harrison said that the 180 day programme also aims to make a number of changes to the look of the arrivals and departure plaza.
This cosmetic overhaul is expected to include a number of new eateries and retail outlets to be situated across the site and also alongside the waterfront in a bid to boost the “guest experience” and play up the local environment.