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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GMR failed to conduct political risk assessment prior to investing, says President Yameen

President Abdulla Yameen has warned foreign companies of the importance of political risk assessment before investing in countries such as the Maldives.

“At a time when you had a very heightened political environment in Maldives, at a time when the parliament was polarised, it was a pity that political risk assessment was not undertaken by GMR,” said the president.

Yameen’s comments came during the scholarship awards ceremony of Trans Maldivian Airways’ (TMA) youth pilot training programme – a company he cited as an example of successful foreign investment after its takeover by the Blackstone Group last year.

“Whenever we hear about GMR, the issue that comes right to the limelight is their inability to assess political risk at the time.”

GMR’s landmark airport development deal – signed during the prematurely ended term of President Mohamed Nasheed – was itself abruptly ended by the succeeding administration in December 2012.

The concession agreement to develop Ibrahim Nasir International Airport was signed in June 2010, the same month in which Nasheed’s entire cabinet resigned in protest against what it considered to be the obstructionist policies of then-opposition parties.

Legal action initiated by the deal’s opponents eventually invalidated the deal’s funding arrangements, leading the government of Dr Mohamed Waheed to justify the annulment using the legal principle of ‘frustration’ – in which unforeseen events render contractual obligations impossible.

In June this year, a Singapore court of arbitration ruled the deal had been  “valid and binding”, finding the Government of Maldives liable for damages still to be determined by the court.

The Maldivian Democratic Party had subsequently called for the reinstatement of the GMR deal, threatening to dissolve any future deals to redevelop the country’s major international airport.

Foreign diversification

During yesterday’s ceremony, President Yameen continued to appeal to foreign investors, expressing the country’s desire to diversify from the dominant tourism industry.

“We are not just about the sun, the sand, the sea – Maldives is more subtle. That is the message we are trying to give to the world now,” he told those in attendance at Traders Hotel.

The government’s drive for new investment has focused upon five ‘mega-projects’ as well as an improved climate for new investors, facilitated by controversial plans to establish special economic zones via legislation recently introduced to the People’s Majlis.

Tracing the journey of foreign investment in the Maldives alongside his own public career, Yameen noted that foreign investments were seen as “punitive” in the mid 1980s, with local laws designed to prevent them.

“My task was to encourage political leaders and the president that foreign investment was not such a bad thing. It is only through foreign investment that small countries such as Maldives could forge ahead.”

Yameen – who spent two decades with the Ministry of Trade and Industries – went on to describe frequently “lonely” and “solitary” overseas discussions on potential investment in the Maldives.

Indeed, the president described the difficulty he had in persuading Blackstone’s risk management personnel to invest in the country. The deal saw the US private equity firm gain a monopoly in the vital seaplane sector as rival firm Maldivian Air Taxi was bought simultaneously.

Congratulating those awarded the TMA training scholarships yesterday, Yameen pointed to the country’s “motivated”, “highly intelligent” and “easily trainable” youth as a key resource, urging the seaplane operator to increase the number of Maldivian staff members.

He also expressed his gratitude to the company for providing assistance in his “endeavour which is to bring prosperity throught the avenue of finding ways for the youth”.

The government recently revealed that a number of companies had expressed interest in the government’s Hulhumalé youth city project – which will reportedly include youth-specific housing, international class sports facilities, a theme park, and a yacht marina, catering to a population of 50,000.

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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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TMA cabin crewman dead after colliding with seaplane propeller

A 20 year-old cabin crew member with TransMaldivian Airways (TMA) has died after colliding with the propeller of a seaplane at Conrad Rangali Island resort.

The police identified the victim as Ismail Hamdoon Mahmood of Fehifarudhaage, Maduvaree in Neemu Atoll.

Police confirmed that a team had been dispatched to the resort to investigate the incident.

Conrad Maldives issued a statement confirming that the incident occurred early Tuesday evening in the resort’s lagoon.

“It is with deep regret that we confirm the death of that crew member.  No one else was injured in this incident.  This has been a tremendous shock, and Conrad Maldives Rangali Resort extends its deepest condolences to the family. This matter is now being handled by the appropriate authorities,” the statement read.

In a statement, TMA’s Managing Director Edward Alsford said that Hamdhoon had “accidentally walked into the line the moving propeller and was subsequently struck and died.”

“TMA have infomed the family and is liaising with the relevant authorities. At the time of the incident the aircraft had no passengers aboard as the crew had moored the aircraft for overnight parking.”

Local media Sun Online reported a source from resort as saying that it was raining at the time and Mahmood had slipped and collided with the propeller while walking on the platform, and fell into the lagoon. His body was retrieved from the water by resort staff and is currently being kept at the resort clinic, Sun reported.

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TMA Chief engineer arrested for alleged sexual assault

Haveeru has reported that the Chief engineer of Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) has been arrested for alleged sexually abuse of a female pilot, also working for TMA.

TMA told Haveeru it had no information regarding the incident.

However police confirmed to Haveeru that the chief engineer had been arrested.

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