Sea plane with tourists crash-lands, all passengers safe

A Trans Maldivian Airways seaplane carrying 11 tourists crashed landed in the water near Kuredhu Island Resort in north central Maldives at 5:30pm today.

The passengers and three members of crew are safe, TMA has said.

The Twin Otter seaplane sank within minutes of crash-landing. A speedboat rescued the passengers and crew within minutes. There were no injuries.

“We have started a comprehensive investigation and will provide support to the relevant investigating authorities,” the TMA said in a statement.

The crash landing occurred just a couple of miles off of Kuredhu Island.

Seaplane accidents are rare in the Maldives.

The TMA and Maldivian Air Taxi (MAT) provide seaplane transfer to a number of tourist resorts. TMA transports nearly one million passengers annually.

In February 2012, an MAT aircraft crash-landed on the water runway at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) with nine passengers due to poor weather conditions. None of the passengers or crew sustained injuries.

A TMA flight crash-landed near Biyadhoo Island resort in February 2011.

TMA won the world’s leading seaplane operator at the World Travel Awards in 2014. The company which merged with MAT in 2013 operates the world’s largest seaplane fleet.

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Introducing rival seaplane operators vital for tourism: MATATO

The Maldives Association for Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) feels it is imperative that competition be introduced to the country’s seaplane industry to assuage fears that the resulting monopoly has negatively hit tourism.

MATATO President Mohamed Khaleel has alleged that the sale of both Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) and Maldivian Air Taxi (MAT) to US-based private equity fund Blackstone in February of this year has already led to increased prices for guests and tour operators.

“We need to find a competitor to [Blackstone],” said Khaleel.

The merged company now operates under the TMA brand.

Several major hospitality groups operating in the country wrote to the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) in August claiming their “worst fears” were being realised regarding the monopoly on the country’s seaplane services.

“You are of course aware that ‘The Blackstone Group’s’ recent entry into the market has had the effect of eliminating competition and creating a monopoly in the charter seaplane market in the Maldives,” wrote the CEO of a major multinational operating in the Maldives.

“We were concerned from the outset about the potential disruptions this could cause in the market and have been monitoring the situation closely.”

In the letter, the company said it was particularly concerned at several contractual points it alleged were being “forced” upon operators by TMA as a result of the seaplane monopoly.

At time of press, Minivan News was awaiting a response from both Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb and TMA  to the allegations raised in the letter.

MATATO concerns

Aside from the impact of the increased costs being passed on to travel agents and consumers, MATATO President Khaleel alleged operators had not been receiving the same levels of support from the seaplane operator under Blackstone in order to promote the industry.

“For instance, we try to run [familiarisation] trips for journalists as part of promotion efforts for the country as a destination, every year in the past we used to get complimentary seaplane services [for promotional purposes],” he stated.

Pointing to key developments in the Maldives business sector in recent years, Khaleel said that introducing competition to the country’s communications and telecoms sector had helped lead to positive changes in price and services since the introduction of private competitors.

He expressed confidence that there was sufficient finance and know-how within the local aviation industry to try and establish a new seaplane operator locally.

Khaleel stressed that although the emergence of a growing number of domestic airports across the country was providing alternative transport options to using seaplanes, the best solution would be to encourage competitive pricing in the market by encouraging competing operators.

“There are multiple people around who can afford this to try and establish fair competition,” he added.

Blackstone “treated us well”: guesthouse operator

Meanwhile, one small hospitality group providing guesthouse accommodation in Noonu Atoll, which has recently renewed an agreement for seaplane services, confirmed it had faced successive rise in costs for the use of seaplane services over the last 12 months for a one way journey from the capital.

A one way seaplane flight to Noonu Atoll per traveller earlier this year rose to US$300 from US$260. The cost per head recently rose again to US$375 under its latest agreement signed within the last month, the operator added.

According to the guesthouse manager, the increased rates had not drastically impacted upon its operations as the property had worked with a specialist European tour operator to bring in groups of travellers – the costs therefore being absorbed into a wider package rate.

Outside of costs, the operator stressed that transport – particularly for the country’s fledgling independent travel market – was a “big issue” for their guesthouse, with the prospect of being priced out of using seaplanes potentially creating long-term difficulties for business.

“We were hoping that they would not raise the seaplane rates too much, and they didn’t,” the guesthouse manager added. “We would have otherwise had to use a recently opened domestic airport nearby, but this would be such a hassle requiring hiring a speedboat for further transportation. [The seaplane] is easy, smooth and elegant for us.”

The operator stressed that, owing to the costs already associated with using seaplanes compared to other forms of transport, its guests usually only took a one-way flight to the property itself with alternative transport arranged by sea as part of the experience.

The guesthouse manager added that seaplanes also gave an additional exotic appeal to the country as a destination, describing one tour operator as being “astonished” after their maiden flight across the country’s skies using the services.

This appeal, the operator argued, was a major additional selling point of the current package offered to guests visiting the Maldives.

“A monopoly makes it much tougher to do business, so in the long-run, I would say it could be a bit scary for the industry,” the manager stated.

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Seaplane crash lands at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport

A seaplane crash landed on the water runway at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport with nine passengers aboard in poor weather conditions just after midday.

The Maldivian Air Taxi (MAT) aircraft was attempting to land in heavy rain on the eastern side of the seaplane lagoon on Hulhule Island at 12.08pm when it crashed into the water.

On board were a total of nine passengers and three crew who were traveling on a 25-minute flight from Lily Beach resort. One of the passengers was Maldivian, two were British and four were Vietnamese.

MAT officials were unable to confirm the nationalities of the rest of the passengers.

Everyone on board was rescued from the aircraft within 10 minutes. There were no serious injuries to any of the passengers or crew but some of the passengers were treated for mild shock.

The MAT Twin Otter seaplane remained afloat and upright but one of the floats was damaged, leaving it leaning to one side with one wing extended into the water.

CEO of GMR, the company which runs Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, Andrew Harrison, said: “Fortunately we have a very good emergency response plan.

“We were able to get the passengers rescued within ten minutes and because we knew they would probably be traumatised, we took them to the CIP ‘Koimala’ Executive Lounge for medical treatment for mild shock.

“I personally met with the passengers and told them that I wished their holiday had not ended on a sour note. All of the passengers actually said that it had not ruined their holiday and they commended the actions of the pilot and crew and congratulated them on their response to the situation.”

Work is currently underway to recover the MAT seaplane from the lagoon. The flight schedules of other seaplanes were unaffected by the incident.

Mr Harrison said: “The damage was limited to one of the floats which became detached from the aircraft, so the plane has been left on one side with one wing in the water. Every recovery is different, and as we are running out of daylight, the situation is becoming more challenging.

“Only the Civil Aviation Authority can comment on the exact cause and the nature of the crash. It’s important to note that this type of aircraft is a very durable and safe type of aircraft, and the pilots and crew operating the seaplanes have lots of experience of operating seaplanes.”

The passengers have now departed from the Maldives did not miss their connecting flights due to the incident.

The General Manager of MAT, Fredrick Groth, said: “At around noon today, one of our aircraft had an incident upon landing; one of the wings hit the water.

“We evacuated everybody and made sure there were no injuries. All of the passengers were okay and went on to their onward flights.

“We don’t wish to comment further until after the investigation has been concluded.”

The Maldives Civil Aviation Authority is now investigating the cause of the crash and interviewing witnesses. Deputy Director General, Hussain Jaleel, told Minivan News that he was unable to reveal the cause of the crash yet because the investigation is on-going.

“We cannot determine the cause of the crash yet because the investigation is not yet finished and the interviews have not been finished yet,” he said.

It had been raining heavily since the early hours of the morning and visibility was low. A seaplane pilot working at the terminal, who did not want to be named, described the weather conditions at the time of the crash as “poor” and added that the seaplane terminal had been closed several times earlier today leading up to the accident due to the bad weather.

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