Cathay Pacific Airways to commence Maldives to Hong Kong service from October

Cathay Pacific Airways has announced it will begin operating services between the Maldives and Hong Kong from October this year.

In a statement issued today, the airline said flight services to and from the Maldives on its Airbus A330-300 aircraft were expected to begin from October 27, 2013 – pending government approval.

The company claimed that the launch would extent its services within the Indian subcontinent, while boosting leisure travel between the Maldives and the Far East – a growing tourism market in recent years.

From the service’s launch, Cathay Pacific Airways has said flights will be operating between Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) in Male’ and Hong Kong every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.


GMR leadership to visit Maldives as government parties escalate nationalisation rhetoric

Board members and the head of Indian infrastructure giant GMR, G M Rao, are due to visit the Maldives later this week in a bid to resolve tensions with the government over the company’s development of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).

The upcoming visit follows a meeting between Rao and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom at a hospital in India where Gayoom’s wife was being treated. Gayoom also recently met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

GMR won a 25 year concession agreement to develop and manage the airport during the Nasheed administration. The opposition at the time challenged the government’s privatisation and threatened to renationalise the airport should it come to power.

Following the controversial transfer of power on February 7, the unity government under President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan has swung between issuing reassurances within diplomatic circles that Indian investments in the country would be protected, while locally stepping up nationalisation rhetoric.

Some of the dissent has blurred the line between business and politics.

Leader of the government-aligned Jumhooree Party (JP), resort tycoon Gasim Ibrahim, urged the government in local media to reclaim the airport, even at a cost of US$700 million, as it was worth “a thousand times more”.

Gasim’s comments followed GMR’s decision to suspend the credit facility for his Villa Air airline, due to unpaid bills totaling MVR 17 million (US$1.1 million) for fuel, ground handling and passenger service fees.

Contentious airport development charge

One of the government’s disagreements with GMR concerns the charging of a US$25 Airport Development Charge (ADC) on outgoing passengers, as stipulated in the concession agreement.

During the last months of the Nasheed administration, the opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) filed a successful case in the Civil Court blocking this fee from being charged on the grounds that was effectively a tax which had not been approved by parliament. DQP leader Dr Hassan Saeed, now President Waheed’s special advisor, and DQP Vice-President Dr Mohamed Jameel – the new Home Minister – justified their disapprobation while in opposition by publishing a pamphlet in Dhivehi (English translation).

The pamphlet described the deal as “paving the way for the enslavement of Maldivians in our beloved land”, and warning that “Indian people are especially devious”.

To abide by the court decision, Nasheed’s government agreed to subtract the ADC from its concession revenue while it sought to appeal.

Following February 7 the opposition inherited that  compromise and in the first quarter of 2012 received only US$525,355 of an anticipated US$8.7 million.

With no resolution, in the second quarter of 2012 the government was presented with a bill for US$1.5 million, due to a shortfall in airport income. The loss of revenue comes at a time when the country is facing a crippling budget deficit, a foreign currency shortage, plummeting investor confidence, spiraling expenditure, and a drop off in foreign aid.

GMR publicly offered to resolve the ADC dispute by exempting Maldivian nationals from paying the fee, but has otherwise kept its negotiations largely behind closed doors.

In a statement at the time, GMR noted that the government received US$33 million in 2011 from airport concession fees, “three times the money the government ever made in a year [from the airport] before privatisation.”

Following construction of the new terminal in 2015 – including “a state-of-the-art 600,000 square foot integrated Passenger Terminal and a 20,000 square foot VIP terminal, and various other airside and landside developments,” expected revenue from the airport to the government was expected to reach US$50 million per year, GMR observed, and almost US$100 million from 2021 as passenger numbers increased.

“In effect, GMR Male’ International Airport Limited’s contribution to the government would be over US$2 billion over the concession period of 25 years, which will make a very significant contribution to the economy of the Maldives.”

The government’s airport company, Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL), complained that it was now facing bankruptcy as a result of the ADC deduction, and insisted that it could make MVR 60 billion (US$3.9 billion) over 25 years by developing and operating the airport on its own. It did not clarify where the investment would come from.

If the government considered GMR’s public offer, it made no sign. Instead, the Transport Minister backed MACL in ordering GMR to pay back the money deducted.

MACL Managing Director Mohamed Ibrahim had told local media that MACL’s agreement with GMR under the previous government to deduct the ADC payment was “null and void”.  He told reporters that the deal was no longer relevant as it had been agreed by the former MACL chairman, who had been replaced under the new government.  Ibrahim contended that charges could therefore no longer be deducted from GMR’s concession payment.

“We had informed [GMR] that the letter from the former Chairman of MACL was now invalid and hence must not be followed. In addition we had also informed that no deductions can be made from the concession fee,” he told local newspaper Haveeru.

The matter has now been sent to the Singapore court of arbitration, as per the concession agreement.


The stand-off escalated in early August following a stop work order on the new terminal development, after the government alleged there were missing planning permissions from the Civil Aviation Authority.

“When the government decides that a project be stopped, we will make sure this happens,” said President’s Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza at the time. “GMR have not discussed the construction with relevant authorities,” he claimed.

In the past week the government and assortment of former opposition parties now in power have stepped up their campaign to pressure the airport developer, with cabinet ministers holding a press conference during which they accused the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) of “negligence” and “irresponsibility” in conducting the original bidding process.

The IFC dismissed the allegations: “The IFC’s advice complied with Maldivian laws and regulations and followed international best practices at each step of the bidding process to ensure the highest degree of competitiveness, transparency and credibility of the process,” the organisation stated.

Attorney General Azima Shukoor then announced she had asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether it had jurisdiction over the airport agreement.

“It is against the International laws and the United Nations Charter that any action that undermines any sovereign right of a sovereign state, it is clear that courts of a sovereign nation has the jurisdiction to look into any matter that takes place within the boundaries of that state as according to the constitution and laws of that state,” read a statement from the court.

“Even though a contract has an arbitration clause giving right to arbitrate in a foreign court does not limit a local courts jurisdiction to look into the formed contract, and it is clear that such limitations are in violation of UN Charters principles of sovereign equality, principle of sovereignty non intervention within domestic jurisdiction, principle of self determination rights,” the Supreme Court said, in an apparent affirmative.

Investor confidence

Meanwhile, the government-aligned Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP) this week revealed President Waheed’s response to its letter requesting details of the implications of exiting the concession agreement with GMR – an apparent fee of US$700 million, although Minivan News understands that even if the government were to produce the money, under the concession agreement it would also be required to prove ‘public interest’ in the Singapore court of arbitration.

According to the DRP, President Waheed advised that it would be “extremely difficult” to make the payment given the country’s economic circumstances, and that cancelling the agreement would furthermore have a negative impact both on perception of the Maldives as a favourable destination for foreign investors, and Maldives-India relations.  Dr Waheed emphasised that the decision was ultimately one for the political parties in the unity government.

The following day, DRP MP Ali Azim called on President Waheed to resign, claiming that it was up to him to reach a decision.

“If Waheed is finding it too hard to come to a decision on the matter of GMR, he ought to resign immediately,” Azim told local media.

“Each of these parties have someone who is looking forward to running in the 2013 elections. Whether it be Gasim, Yameen or Thasmeen, they are all just waiting for 2013 to come around. Now if Waheed’s going to ask these men for advice, then he’s going to get tricked, isn’t he?” predicted the MP.


Two drunk Maldivians arrested in Colombo for harassment during Sri Lankan Airlines flight

Two Maldivians were arrested at Colombo Airport after they boarded a Sri Lankan Airlines flight drunk and violently harassed passengers and cabin crew during the flight, reports Sri Lanka’s ‘Daily Mirror’ newspaper.

Sri Lankan police told the paper that the two Maldivians were under the influence of liquor and were apprehended by the Katunayake police for behaving in an unruly manner.

“The two suspects acted violently, harassing the passengers and crew following the flight’s departure from Bangkok late last night,” the paper reported. “Soon after the landing at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake, the two suspects were taken into police custody and they were to be produced before the Magistrate shortly.”

Maldivian newspaper ‘Haveeru’ has also reported the same incident and identified the pair as Hanif Mushaf and Washeed Ibrahim.

Haveeru quoted a senior Sri Lankan police officer as saying that the two Maldivian nationals tried to manhandle the cabin crew and passengers.

The cabin crew reportedly warned the two Maldivians to calm down, the paper reported.

Maldives Police Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef told Minivan News that he had heard about the incident through the media but could not yet confirm the arrest.

First Secretary at the Maldivian Embassy in Srilanka Ahmed Mujthaba was not responding to calls at the time of going to press.

The Sri Lankan Airlines office in Male’ was closed for the public holiday.


Qatar flight delayed in payment dispute over ground handling charges

A Qatar flight scheduled to fly to Doha on Sunday night was refused permission to depart Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) following the airline’s ongoing refusal to pay increased ground handling charges.

The move came after the airline’s CEO Akbar Al Baker last week was recently reported as stating that Qatar would re-consider flying to the Maldives if airport operator GMR insisted on a 51 percent increase in ground handling charges.

“If we or any other major player withdraws services because of these unwarranted and draconian measures, it will be the people of the Maldives who will lose out, affecting their livelihoods as they rely heavily on the tourism industry,” Al Baker said.

Minivan News reported yesterday that GMR had requested that Qatar pay cash for the day’s flights.

INIA CEO Andrew Harrison told Minivan News today that the flight had been refused permission to depart due to the airline’s lack of payment of the revised charges.

The flight was delayed an hour and 20 minutes, he said, before GMR allowed it to depart “on compassionate grounds. There were women and children on board and passengers with international connections to make, who were being inconvenienced through no fault of their own,” he said.

Minivan News understands that GMR is currently in talks with several airlines regarding back payment of the increased charges. The company has said it will release a formal statement later in the week.

“MACL (Maldives Airport Company Limited) announced the revised charges in February 2010, after 14 years without increases,” Harrison said. “The charges are still below those for the same aircraft sizes at other airports in the region.”

MACL’s revised charges came into effect on 1 November 2010, Harrison explained. “They had an obligation to give six months notice, and they gave nine. We took over on 25 November. We included [the revised charges] as part of our business and revenue.”

Qatar’s Country Manager for the Maldives Sayed Mohammad Tariq said the matter was being dealt with at head office level by the airline’s senior management.

“Qatar’s CEO made his position very clear. We have nothing to say at station level,” he told Minivan News.

Morning and evening flights on Monday were cancelled. However Tariq said no decision had been made to cancel future flights which remained in the airline’s booking system.

The airline was today taking care of passengers affected by the payment dispute, he said. “We are taking care of all passengers and putting them on other flights.”


Tourism arrivals would drop “10-36 percent” if government provokes terrorist attack, warns Adhaalath

The religious Adhaalath Party has sent a letter to parliament warning that a terrorist attack in the Maldives would reduce tourist arrivals “by 10-36 percent for the next 12 months.”

The letter was sent to parliament’s national security committee which has begun debating whether to permit Israeli flights to land in the Maldives.

“If there is a terrorist attack in the Maldives due to the commencement of Zionist Israel’s flight operations to Maldives, the tourist arrival rates for the next 12 months will decline by 10-36 percent,” Adhaalath predicted in the letter, adding that the tourism industry would face a loss of US$200 million to US$1 billion. The party did not elaborate on how it reached the figures.

Adhaalath severed its coalition agreement with the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in September, soon after the Transport Ministry granted a licence to Israeli flag carrier El Al to begin operations to Maldives.

Since then, Adhaalath has been campaigning against the licence, stirring strong anti-Israeli sentiment.

In the letter forwarded to the national security committee, which has an MDP majority, Adhaalath alleged that the Israeli flights are “targeted by the terrorists” and said that terrorist “eyes” would turn on Maldives if the operations commence, posing “serious threats to the national security”.

MPs debated Adhaalath’s letter during Wednesday’s committee meeting and decided to summon the head of the Maldives security forces to examine the claims.

“We will discuss the concerns raised by the Adhaalath Party and consult security forces to determine whether action should be taken,” said committee head, MDP MP Ali Waheed.

MDP MP Mohamed Thoriq was meanwhile quoted in local media as calling for an investigation into all the allegations Adhaalath has made regarding the Maldives’ ties with Israel, claiming that as a 100 percent muslin country, the Maldives must “be prepared for any threats from Israel”.

Sun Online reported MDP MP Mohamed Nazim meanwhile suggested conducting research into whether Jewish arrivals to the Maldives in the past had caused any negative effect on the Islamic faith, while Independent MP Mohamed Zubair was quoted as claiming that Israeli flight operations would “bring no benefit to the Maldivian economy”.

Transport Minister Adhil Saleem observed that opponents of allowing Israel to fly to the Maldives “don’t seem to have an issue with Israeli tourists coming to the Maldives and spending their money.”

His mandate as Transport Minister was to increase air, sea and cargo transport to and from all countries, Saleem said, “and if there is no specific legal exemption for Israel, I cannot treat it any differently as that would mean I was corrupt.”

He would not comment on whether allowing El Al to fly to the Maldives posed a security risk, deferring to the defence forces. There were, he said, many Muslim Israelis and a number of Islamic holy sites in Israel, such as the Masjid-Al-Aqsa, and 500-800 Maldivians flew there each year.

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the Arab population of Israel in 2010 was estimated at 1,573,000, 20 percent of the country’s total population and almost five times that of the Maldives.

El Al is notably the only commercial airline equipped with infrared counter-measures for defence against anti-aircraft missiles, according to the its Wikipedia entry. All flights are manned by armed sky marshals, the cockpit is protected by a two door ‘mantrap’, and the baggage hold is armoured to protect the passenger cabin from explosive devices.

The airline’s last reported security incident occurred in 2002 when a 23 year-old Israeli Arab was apprehended after attempting to break into the cockpit with a pocket knife. Earlier that same year a gunman killed two people and was shot dead at an El Al check in counter at Los Angeles International Airport.

The first El Al flight was due to arrive in the Maldives on December 13, however Saleem said the airline has so far yet to forward the scheduling to the Ministry.


GMR to begin charging US$25 development fee to departing passengers

GMR will begin charging international passengers a US$25 (Rf385.5) Airport Development Charge (ADC) at the departure check-in counters of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport for all flights scheduled after 12 am on January 1, 2012.

The fee was previously approved by the government as part of its contract with GMR, said State Transport Minister Adil Saleem.

“This is supposed to be standard procedure in most airports, but I’m not sure that all airports do it. It may depend on their development status. Sometimes it’s collected with the ticket price,” said GMR Head of Corporate Communications Mahika Chandrasena.

To incorporate the fee into ticket prices, International Air Transport Association (IATA) must provide a specialised code to airlines. IATA has not provided these codes.

Local airline operators allegedly informed GMR last week that without IATA’s permission they could not charge the fee internally.

Administrative Manager for Maldivian Airlines Ali Nashad Ahmed said the airline was “still seeking advice from Civil Aviation on how to proceed” with fees and customer relations due to the change. The airline expects to receive further instructions within the next week.

According to Chandrasena, the mechanism to incorporate the fee into ticket prices will be installed in the near future. Until then, GMR will charge the fee separate from airline tickets as per government regulations.

Immigration and customs authorities have supported the move, said Chandrasena, although the public is disgruntled at the higher price. “The fee is actually low compared to other airports,” said Chandrasena. “In Indonesia the fee is somewhere around US$50.”

Deputy Director General of the Civil Aviation Department Hussein Jaleel today said he didn’t know why IATA had refused the code, but that the department was recommending that the fee be charged at point of sale.

“It is more convenient for the passengers,” he said. “Some airports charge the fee separately, so this not peculiar to the Maldives. But our recommendation is to include the fee in the ticket price itself, so passengers only have to make one payment,” Jaleel said.

All passengers except those holding Maldivian passports and work visas will be expected to pay the amount in US dollars. The boarding pass will be issued after payment.


Maamigili MP opens first private airport with personal airline Flyme

The Maldives’ first private airport opened today in Alif Dhaal atoll Maamigili with Maamigili MP Gasim Ibrahim’s own ‘Flyme’ airline beginning operations from Male.

The first commercial ‘Flyme’ flight left Male this morning with 16 tourists, Gasim, his family, and senior Villa officials on board, Haveeru reports. The airline has two aircraft with a capacity of 46 passengers each.

Maldives Association of Tourism Industries (MATI) is said to have provided support for the airport’s construction. Gasim said the airport includes private jet parking, and there are plans to use more aircraft to service Gaaf Dhaal atoll Kaadehdhoo and Seenu atoll Gan.

CEO of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, Andrew Harrison, has expressed support for the airline.

Flyme airlines scheduled 10 flights for its opening day, however it did not disclose ticket prices.


Israeli national carrier El Al requests permission to fly to Maldives

Israel’s national carrier El Al has formally applied to the Ministry of Civil Aviation to begin flying to the Maldives from December.

President Mohamed Nasheed’s Press Secretary, Mohamed Zuhair, said he believed the government was inclined to grant permission to the airline.

“Despite the reservations of the Adhaalath Party and other religious groups [in the Maldives], El Al flies to many Arab capitals and is even accessible to those people claiming to work against Israel, who seem to have no objections to it,” Zuhair observed.

He did acknowledge that permitting the airline to fly the Maldives represented “a political obstacle”, but suggested it was “one for the Adhaalath party to explain.”

“Maldivians have not been directly affected by any actions taken by Israel, and the Maldives is in fact involved in peace initiatives undertaken in the Middle East by the Maldivian government,” Zuhair said. “I don’t see the justification for not accepting an Israeli airline that is accepted by Arab states claiming to be victims of Israel.”

The religiously-conservative Adhaalath Party has declared it will terminate its coalition agreement with the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) if it allows an Israeli airline to fly to the Maldives.

In an earlier statement on the matter in April, the party claimed there “were reasons” why out of the 50 Islamic countries, 48 had declined permission for El Al to operate.

“It is because Israel is the biggest enemy of the whole Muslim community, a country that has stolen the holy lands of Muslims, a country that is committing violence against the people of Palestine and as Israeli flights are targets of terrorist organisations, it raises security concerns,” the party said.

An earlier request by the airline’s charter subsidiary Sun D’Or was denied after Israel’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) revoked its license ruling that it was functionally indistinguishable from El Al.

The rebranding effort was an attempt by El Al to circumvent religious backlash from ultra-orthodox Israeli groups over operating flights on the Sabbath and religious holidays, which it claimed were leaving it unable to compete with other major carriers.

Strong anti-Israel sentiment persists in the Maldives. Visiting Israeli eye surgeons from the ‘Eyes from Zion’ NGO were in November met with protests and the burning of the Israeli flag in Male’s Republic Square. The Islamic Foundation NGO contested at the time that Israeli surgeons “have become notorious for illegally harvesting organs from non-Jews around the world.”


Transport authorities look to complete Israeli airline deal

Transport officials have confirmed that a subsidiary of Israel’s flagship airline El Al is in the process of starting services to the Maldives later this year, despite some fervent anti-Israel sentiment in the country and recent administrative difficulties between the flight operator and its parent company.

Transport Minister Adil Saleem told Minivan News that relevant authorities were currently processing a license for Sun d’Or International Airlines to begin operating to the Maldives after talks began last year. He claimed such a move would create opportunities for both Israeli tourists to visit the country as well as facilitate pilgrimages for Maldivians to mosques around Jerusalem and other parts of the country.

Sun D’Or International, which is wholly owned by Israeli transport group El Al, was reported to have ceased operations from April 1 this year after the country’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) ruled that it relied on its parent company to administer and provide infrastructure to its operations – a situation it deemed “unsatisfactory”.

In a report for the Reuters news agency, despite reservations raised by the CAA on the manner the company was being run, the Israeli Transport Ministry claimed that the aircraft, maintained by El Al , were “completely safe” and any reservations about Sun D’Or International’s operations related solely to “administrative issues”. The report quoted ministry officials as saying that El Al could continue to use the Sun D’Or brand name commercially, but could not continue to operate the airline as an independent company.

A spokesperson for El Al was unavailable for comment when contacted by Minivan News at the time of press, but Adil Saleem claimed that to his knowledge, negotiations to begin services to the Maldives had not been affected so far by the Israeli CAA’s decision.

“I am not presently on top of the latest developments [with the company], but I believe we have almost completed the licence process for the services, which are expected to begin in October.

In recent months, the Maldives has seen a number of protests against Israel and its foreign policy along with claims by one former opposition party leader that the privatisation of Male’ International Airport would allow for Israeli bombers to go out of their way to refuel in the Maldives on their way to attack its neighbours in the Middle East. Saleem said he had taken such controversies on board.

“The [transport] department has gone through their procedures that it goes through with any airline planning to operate to the Maldives.  As Transport Minister I have looked at this like with any other airline,” he said. “Some Maldivians see Israel as controversial over the issue of Palestine. Yet Palestine accepts Israel as a state, benchmarking the point that I don’t see why we should not allow these flights.”

Saleem said that the Maldives already played host to a number of Israeli tourists at its resorts and that the airline would allow for a greater influx of guests to the country’s tourism industry.

The Transport Minister added that it had also become fashionable for some Muslims to travel to ancient mosques in Medina and Jerusalem, with the deal potentially allowing for local companies to provide pilgrimages to these sites.