GMR not worried about airport politicking, will invest US$373 million

The GMR-Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) consortium that recently won the controversial bid to develop Male’ International Airport will spend US$373 million on the upgrade, MAHB has reported.

Speaking at the opening of the cavernous Delhi Terminal 3 last week, GMR Manager P Sripathi told Maldivian journalists that physical work would begin on the airport towards the end of this year.

“The first phase is organising the finances and transitioning the airport from a government-run enterprise to a privately-run enterprise,” he explained.

“The transition will be a new thing [for the Maldives] and we will be there to help with that. We have done such things in other places, and we know how to go about it,” he said.

“There are over 100 various items have to be agreed and signed off between the [incumbent] Maldives Airport Company Limited (MACL) board and ourselves, but we expect to see work start on the new terminal 9-10 months from now.”

Impression of the new airport at night
Impression of the new airport at night

Sripathi said that within six months GMR would upgrade existing facilities at Male’ International Airport “to a level that international passengers and tourists may [expect]. We will deal with the ‘pinch points’ that are there today.”

Ultimately the development will involve 45,000 square metres of new terminal, repair and expansion of the runway, parking and taxiing space, and a turning point so more flights can be landed in the space of an hour.

The infrastructure giant’s ‘brownfields’ approach – refurbishing an active airport, as opposed to a ‘greenfields’ or ‘from scratch’ project – mirrors that of its much larger airport development in Dehli. The old terminal was upgraded prior to the opening of the new one last week, which is now expected to cater to 90 percent of the airport’s passengers, with capacity of 34 million per annum upgradable to 100 million.

Sripathi acknowledged that while nothing of similar scope was going to be built in the Maldives – Male’ International Airport currently handles 800,000 passengers per annum (each way), “[Dehli] is definitely in the vein we are planning.”

Representing a company about to plow US$400 million into Hulhule, Sripathi is unsurprisingly unconcerned about rising sea levels: “Worried? Absolutely not. Land that has been there for 2500 years is not going to disappear in 25 years,” he chuckled.

Local controversy regarding privatisation and the recent political upheaval have given equally little pause to the infrastructure juggernaut – but its recent entertainment of the Maldives press pack suggest it is sensitive to domestic public opinion.

“We are not worried, because we are out of the fold. We are here to do a job,” Sripathi said.

The debate [over privatisation] has obviously been there for a long time, and is perhaps coming to an end, that we leave to [the politicians]. We are only here to do our bit.”

Accusations by opposition parties about the transparency of the bidding process were not something in which GMR saw itself involved, Sripathi said.

“Let me distinguish our role from the government’s role,” he said. “Whatever the political debate that goes on in the country, we shouldn’t be interfering – that is not our duty. That is between the executive and the [opposition]. In this particular instance, if there is opposition to privatisation then this debate has taken place over many years. Otherwise government wouldn’t have initiated this privatisation program in the first place.

Natural lighting in the new terminal building

“The World Bank IFC has [monitored] this exercise and given a very good report, and that is where this should stop,” he said.

The government’s calculations acknowledge that the strength of GMR’s bid came from its US$78 million upfront payment (compared with US$27 million from the second-highest bidder) and in particular, its 27 percent sharing of fuel revenue.

Based on GMR’s forecast, the government anticipates that 60 percent of government revenue from the airport deal will derive from fuel – $74.25 million annually between 2015-2020, increasing to US$128.7 a year from 2025-2035. This in turn was the most significant element of the final ‘net-present-value’ calculations to determine the winning bid.

The Turkish-French consortium TAV-ADPM, who expressed dissatisfaction with the bid evaluation process to newspaper Haveeru and requested a “re-evaluation of the bids”, expressed disbelief that the GMR-MAHB consortium would be able to offer such a high percentage of the fuel trade to the government “without facing any loss.” TAV-ADPM had offered 16.5 percent, warning that pushing prices higher would drive buyers away.

Sripathi claimed 27 percent was “absolutely reasonable. We have done our homework, otherwise we would not have made the bid.”

“In Male [airport] there are two types of fuel trade going on: MACL sells directly to airlines, and in another kind of sale, parties buy from MACL and then sell to airlines,” he explained. “We looked at the margins of both lines of business, kept the same percentages, and calculated what we could offer the government if we took over all this and amalgamated it under one umbrella. The margin we can give to the government? 27 percent.”

Quizzed as to whether it was reasonable to estimate a revenue share by forecasting fuel prices over the lifespan of a 25 year agreement, Sripathi replied “everybody predicts. There are international agencies that predict the way fuel prices will go up and down.”

“I’m talking about the top line,” he said. “Bottom line, if the fuel prices go up, similarly everywhere will go up and the selling prices will also go up. We have to put a margin in there.”

At its airport in Hyderabad, GMR allows five independent fuel suppliers to compete to offer the most competitive price to the airlines.

In Male, “the volume does not support that. In India there are refineries and many fuel companies operating, and fuel companies can sell directly to the airlines,” Sripathi noted. “But in the Maldives fuel is imported, and the volumes are such that not many people come and buy fuel – the model is different.”

While its fuel figures are undoubtedly one of the major reasons behind GMR’s winning bid, a simple fuel monopoly is unlikely to recoup the consortium’s US$400 million investment.

Either GMR anticipates that global growth in the fuel trade is worth the risk, or it is taking a hit on the fuel price for the sake of offering a much lower 10 percent share of gross airport revenue, as compared to the other bids (TAV-ADPM offered almost 30 percent). The only figures available to the government in estimating this revenue (a staid US$20.43 million by 2025-2035) will have derived from the existing commercial revenue from the airport.

Compared to the glittering Gucci-lined corridors of airports in tourist cities such as Dubai, Male’ International’s 4-5 meagre departure lounge shops and dilapidated eateries look positively downtown in comparison – a striking missed opportunity, given the bulging wallet of the average visitor to the Maldives.

Sripathi indicated that the consortium is very interested in the well-heeled concourse traffic – sufficiently interested for the infrastructure giant to invest a sum equal to almost half the country’s entire GDP.

“It’s a lovely project. The type of tourists coming are from the very high-end tourism market, therefore the business opportunities are plenty,” Sripathi hinted.

“I would say the airport is naturally located to advance a lot aspects, like cargo. For example, many people would be surprised to know just how much cargo goes through the airport, because of the number of international connections and wide body aircraft using the airport. People are transiting air freight through the Maldives from places like Colombo – this means there is niche value out there.”

Some investment will be recovered through a US$25 airport development tax, set by the government for all bidders to be levied only on international travellers at time of departure and added to ticket prices.

Inside the proposed concourse
Inside the concourse


Many longer term “vision” projects associated with the airport seem designed to appeal to government planners. The airport will be unlocking 50 acres of land and will develop “what we envision will become the Maldives’ financial district,” Sripathi said. “That’s from our vision document. [The government] asked what can be done, and we used our expertise and experts from the US, and this is one of the things we have proposed.”

The company also runs a social responsibility foundation, GMR Varalakshmi, that funds schools and vocational training in areas where it operates. The company took the Maldivian media on a tour of its centre near Hyderabad, which included a residential technical training college running free courses for 500 young people in trades ranging from air-conditioning and electronics to IT, sewing and hotel management – often in conjunction with the group’s partners and suppliers. Guides emphasised the importance given to instilling discipline and professionalism in students, as well as technical training.

Regarding salaries and employment of existing airport staff in Male’ – a key point of contention among the opposition parties critical of the deal – Sripathi commented that the company was “not about to bring Indian standards [of employment] to Maldives – income levels and expenses are dependent on place – it is independent.”

Ground handling, currently outsourced to Island Aviation, will be taken over by the new airport company, Sripathi confirmed.

“Whether we need more than one ground handling company depends on the size of business,” he said. “If size of business allows it, then we can [involve another company], otherwise there will be single party doing it to international standard.”

For other airport staff – aside from security, immigration and air traffic control, which will continue to run by the government as per other international airports – the 1500 people currently working at the airport “will become part of the privatisation process. We are in talks MACL board members,” Sripathi said.

“We are looking at their concerns and anxieties – ultimately people think somebody is coming into the country to take over the airport. But we are here to help develop the airport’s assets and show people its full potential,” he continued.

“But what is important keep in mind is that investment in an airport is a heavy investment – US$400 million is a heavy investment. These sorts of numbers must be returned to us – and the government – otherwise we both cannot survive.”

Disclosure: Minivan News and 10 other representatives of the Maldivian media recently toured Hyderabad airport and attended the opening of Dehli Terminal 3 as guests of GMR.

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously referred to ‘Malaysia Airlines (MAHB)’ in one instance, where it should have read ‘Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB)’. This has been corrected.


Government signs Male International Airport to GMR-Malaysia Airports consortium

The government today signed a 25 year lease agreement with the GMR-Malaysia Airport Holdings consortium to develop and manage Male’ International Airport, hours after parliament voted in favour of a bill requiring parliamentary approval of lease transactions with overseas parties.

Chairman of the Privatisation Committee, Mahmoud Razee, claimed parliament’s decision today would not impact the signing “as it yet to be ratified by the president.”

The signing ceremony was scheduled for yesterday but was derailed at the eleventh hour after reported disagreements between board members of the Maldives Airport Company Limited (MACL), the organisation which currently manages the airport.

Minivan News understands the four MACL board positions were reshuffled by the government last night in an effort to proceed with the signing today, although this has yet to be officially confirmed – new chairman Ibrahim Saleem, also Chairman of the Maldives Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC), signed the contract today in place of former chairman Ibrahim Nooradeen.

An official of the President’s Office observed to Minivan News that as the MACL is a public company with 100 percent of its shares owned by the government, “it is the duty of the board to act in the interests of the major shareholder.”

Minivan News is currently seeking comment from the board members.

Under the new agreement, the consortium will establish a new local company to manage the airport which will be operated by Malaysia Airlines Holdings. The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) will remain in charge of security, and immigration will remain under government control. A briefing document obtained by Minivan News also indicates that the agreement comes with a clause that no staff can be made redundant for two years unless for “disciplinary or performance related reasons.”

The deal has proved controversial with four opposition parties signing a statement on Saturday evening condemning the decision on nationalistic grounds, arguing that handing management of the airport to a foreign company compromised the sovereignty of the Maldives.

Deputy Leader of the main opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), Ibrahim Shareef, said last week that the DRP would not honour “shady deals of this type” if it came to power in the next election, unless they were approved by parliament, while today another of the party’s deputy leaders, Umar Naseer, said the deal was “ridiculous” and would result in the dismissal of half the airport’s 3000 staff.

Speaking briefly to the media following the signing, Managing Director of GMR Infrastructure Sri Pathi hinted acknowledgement of the controversy, stating that “airports always belong to the people – never to us.”

“Please don’t think we came here to take over the airport,” he said. “We perhaps become the trustees – but emotionally in terms of ownership it belongs to the people. We are of course here to invest our money and make a business deal on the best terms possible – but the airport still belongs to the people. We make a commitment that we will operate the airport to the best international standards that we can, and prove to you that the trust you place in us will never be betrayed.”

Managing Director of Malaysia Airports Holdings, Basheer Ahmed, noted that the majority Malaysian-government owned company managed 39 airports in Malaysia and several overseas, including airports in Hyderbad and Delhi.

“Every country needs an excellent airport because it is the visitor’s first impression,” he said.

The briefing document obtained by Minivan News contains forecasts of the government’s expected earnings (reportedly provided by GMR) from the airport over the lifespan of the contract. It reveals that a majority of the predicted revenue, a major factor in calculating the NPV (net present value) used to determine the successful bid, derives from the 27 percent fuel revenue share once the airport is completed in 2014:

  • 2015-2020: 12.8m gross + 74.25m fuel = US$87.05m per year
  • 2020-2025- 17.02m gross + 90.99m fuel = US$108.01m per year
  • 2025-2035 – 20.43 gross + 108.27m fuel = US$128.7 m per year

The document contrasted this with the dividends paid to the government by MACL over the last three years, noting that the majority of the dividends paid in 2008-2009 were achieved “by taking a loan.”

  • 2007 – 2.3 million
  • 2008 – 13.3 million
  • 2009 – 5.05 million

On the suggestion that MACL should be allowed to raise finance and invest in the upgrade itself, a predicted US$300-400 million, the document noted that MACL “already has debts of Rf 600 million (US$46.69 million)” and would be unable to obtain further leverage “without a sovereign guarantee – simply not allowed due to the IMF measures.”

The airport was signed to GMR-MAH late this afternoon.

Meanwhile, daily newspaper Haveeru featured an interview with the Turkish-French consortium TAV-ADPM, who have reportedly expressed dissatisfaction of the bid evaluation process “and urged for a re-evaluation of the bids.”

“The newspapers started reporting that GMR won the bid even though we were not told the party who won the bid. We faced many problems, since the two companies in our consortium are also listed in stock exchange,” Haveerru reported head of the consortium, Gusiloo Betkin, as saying. “It cannot be said that a certain party won the bid without signing the concession agreement.”

Betkin expressed disbelief to Haveeru that the GMR-MAH bid could offer the government 27 percent of fuel trade “without facing any loss. We are a party that provides services to 170 million passengers annually in 39 airports. We also have experience in fuel trade,” Betkin told the newspaper.

TAV-ADPM had offered 16.5 percent of fuel trade to the government, he noted, the highest deemed feasible, and that at 27 percent, flight arrivals to the Maldives would be affected by rising fuel prices.

“The main thing is the fuel. If the fuel prices are high, no one will take in fuel from there – Maldives will lose that income. The airlines will also focus to other destinations,” Betkin told Haveeru.

The government’s Net Present Value calculations:

    Upfront fee: US$7m
    Variable concession fees share – non fuel – 2011-2014: 31%
    Variable concession fees – fuel – 2011-2014: 16.5%
    Variable concession fees share – non fuel – 2015-2025: 29.5%
    Variable concession fees – fuel – 2015-2025: 16.5%
    NPV: 454.04
    Upfront fee: US$78m
    Variable concession fees share – non fuel – 2011-2014: 1%
    Variable concession fees – fuel – 2011-2014: 15%
    Variable concession fees share – non fuel – 2015-2025: 10%
    Variable concession fees – fuel – 2015-2025: 27%
    NPV: 495.18
  • Unique-GVK
    Upfront fee: US$27m
    Variable concession fees share – non fuel – 2011-2014: 27%
    Variable concession fees – fuel – 2011-2014: 9%
    Variable concession fees share – non fuel – 2015-2025: 9%
    Variable concession fees – fuel – 2015-2025: 9%
    NPV: 266.94