MACL is the operator of the Maldives’ Velana International Airport and the company is responsible for airport planning and operations. The company has embarked on the biggest airport expansion project in history of the country and is now preparing for further growth in international passengers from 3 million to a targeted 7.5 million passenger capacity by 2035. MACL’s Acting Managing Director, Moosa Solih talks through the ongoing airport expansion projects and advantages of the Maldives for foreign investors
You took up your current post last November, having previously served as deputy chief information officer. What have been your most significant challenges since then, and what are the key achievements for MACL?
My story does not start as the deputy chief information officer. A long way back I started here as an engineer and after that for 10 years I was heading technical department in which I was handling the air traffic control systems, aerodrome and all its operational components. After some time I went on to become chief operating officer for the whole airport. Then came a management change when an Indian firm came in with its own management system. After they left, the company underwent a series of restructuring changes and I was handling the IT component, which was the emerging challenge at that time. Ever since then I was deputizing for the MD. Therefore, managing the company at this level has not been a challenge for me.
We have a number of development projects at hand, and when the previous MD resigned, the management of this infrastructure project became my biggest challenge. Earlier I was a part of the project, but now I am responsible for the whole expansion project at Velana International Airport, and that is the biggest challenge for me now. We have had a number of achievements: last year we got the World Travel Awards as the Indian Ocean’s Leading Airport amongst five competitors. Our airport as a station received the 2018 best baggage performance award from tier one out of the 142 stations across the Emirates network. The overall cargo tonnage increased by 37% from 2013 to 2018, which is an achievement. We broke our previous record on runway movements in a single day with 219 runway movements on 24 February 2019, and also with 517 seaplane movements on 23 December 2018. On 23 December 2019, we handled around 22,000 passengers in a single day, which is again a record for us. We are now an RA3 certified airport for European Cargo Exports and also we are now an ISAGO certified airport from IATA for ground operations, giving us the credibility on airline audits.
Works on the main seaplane terminal at Velana airport are now ongoing. What does this mean for passenger transport in the Maldives?
Previously, all transportation of passengers to resorts was by sea. An entrepreneur saw an opportunity in that air transport would be a better choice because sea transport depends on the weather and lots of other things, while air transport is quicker and more comfortable. In addition, you get a better view of the scenery and the beauty of the Maldives from the air. This entrepreneur started with two seaplanes, and today there are over 50 units here. Our national airline also started its own seaplane operations. Right now, we have the biggest seaplane operations in the world and we are still expanding, because the resorts are expanding and traffic is increasing. We are now developing a new seaplane terminal and bringing additional operators for seaplane operations. We reclaimed 18,000 square metres of land to build the new seaplane area for operations. The new stylish four-storey seaplane building will be monumental, and comes with its own aircraft maintenance facilities.
Currently, we have a lagoon that will allow us to handle, at any given time, up to 100 seaplane aircraft. On 23 December 2018 we broke the record, with 570 seaplane movements between 6am and 6pm, handling almost 5,500 passengers in that short period. That was a record-breaking day for us.
The government hopes to welcome 2.4 million tourist arrivals per year by 2024. What role does MACL play in making that a reality?
Our focus has been to develop the entire airport because we believe that tourism must grow in order to serve the economy of our country. We are not focusing only on one component, but we are undergoing a total transformation. By the time we complete the ongoing major projects, it will be virtually an entirely new airport – with a new runway, a new international passenger terminal building, car park facilities, new cargo complex area, new fuel farm, new seaplane terminal and new CIP/ VIP terminal complex. This is a $1-billion project. So, aligned with this government’s initiative, we are seriously investing in this airport.
This investment is not going to be done in phases – it’s happening simultaneously at all levels. We have already finished the construction of the new Code F runway, and we are expecting it to be operational by the fourth quarter of 2019. Physical work on the new international passenger terminal building is ongoing and we aim to complete this project within three years. Our new cargo facility will be able to hold more than three times than the current capacity. Now, we accommodate 50,000 tonnes annually, and that will go up to 120,000 tonnes. The new fuel farm will have hydrant systems and with an increased storage of 45 million litres of Jet A1 fuel, up from 16 million litres. The new CIP/VIP Terminal complex will have more than 6,000 square metres. At the moment, the facility is 600 square metres. The new seaplane area comes with MRO facilities and more than 80 docking area for seaplanes. In terms of passengers, the new International Passenger Terminal will have the capacity to handle around 7.5 million passengers, whereas current capacity is at 3 million. This project has its sights set well into the future.
What opportunities are available for investors and international partners to get involved in ongoing development projects to make Velana International Airport a world-class facility?
We are expanding all areas of the physical infrastructure of the airport, and this therefore opens up opportunities for new services to be introduced. One of the areas in which we see fast growth is in business aviation. More business travellers are coming in with their own aircraft, looking for better facilities, better lounges and better services. This is an open opportunity for expansion. Of course, every day there are demands for seaplane operators, because the five-star and seven-star resorts in the Maldives are expanding. Some resorts want to have their own aircraft, and they want to facilitate transportation between the airport and the resorts. There is a lot of opportunity for those who are already in the market to join us, move with us and support us in bringing in new innovations and services.
How would you assess the airport’s relationship to various Gulf airlines, and the prospects of further air connectivity opened up by the new Joint Cooperation Committee to be formed between the UAE and the Maldives?
Most of the Gulf airlines fly with us and many of them have high-frequency flight schedules, airlines like Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, Oman Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines. We have a good relationship with Gulf carriers, and we share their goal of wanting to excel in providing services to our passengers. We are looking forward to many good things to come from our partnerships with Gulf countries.
What is your key message to our readership?
The Maldives is considered a paradise destination. I think everybody deserves to have a look at its beauty and everybody deserves to enjoy the type of life that we are promoting. We teach you the art of doing nothing; that is relaxing but there are a lot of things to do like water-sports and island hopping. I think everybody should have the right to visit these islands, see the beauty and the relaxing side of life here, and we invite people to do so. On the commercial side, I would say that we still have many more areas to develop in the tourism sector. There are a lot of areas into which we can grow and a lot of opportunities. Now, for the first time, we have developed an entertainment island, which will have all of the facilities in one place, like in Dubai. There is an opportunity to create similar entertainment centres on islands elsewhere in the Maldives, because they don’t yet exist anywhere else.
Please do visit Maldives and experience us.