Airlines of South Asia – Part 5 The Maldives
With the launch of scheduled flights to the Maldives (Maldive Islands) archipelago by Air Ceylon in 1967, the tourism industry to these idyllic islands was born. Realizing the vital importance of an air service to their small nation, the government of the Maldives took steps to establish their own airline, Air Maldives (IATA code L6, ICAO AMI) .
Accordingly, AMI purchased two Convair 440s the same twin-piston-engine type used by Helitours, the commercial arm of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) to fly passenger services to the islands from Colombo to Hulhulé airport, located on a small island adjacent to the capital city of Malé. Operated with close cooperation from the SLAF, Air Maldives flights commenced in October 1974.
A steady build-up in traffic to the Maldives led to an increase in flights, Air Ceylon adding services with its Avro 748, in addition to the Convair 440s operated by Helitours and Air Maldives. Indian Airlines had also launched Avro 748 services from Trivandrum by 1976. The surge in traffic sparked the interest of foreign investors, and in 1976 a Singapore-based company took a 49% shareholding in Air Maldives. However, this partnership proved short-lived, with the Maldivian government grounding the airline and seizing its assets in 1977. A
leased Indian Airlines aircraft provided air services from Malé to Trivandrum and Colombo during this period, under the name Maldives International Airlines, financed by the Maldivian government from 1977 to 1984.
In the 1980s Air Maldives focused on domestic operations, flying a Short SC.7
Skyvan and two Dornier Do 228s on intra-island operations, leaving the booming foreign tourist traffic to other carriers perhaps for reasons I will explain later. This situation persisted until 1994 when another foreign investor, this time Malaysian, established a joint venture with the Maldivian government. This led to rapid expansion of international operations, initially using an Airbus A300B4 and later
with A310s, to Colombo, Kuala Lumpur, Trivandrum, Bangkok and London.
What appeared to be a viable enterprise abruptly ceased operations in the year 2000 for reasons that have never been fully explained.
In the 1980s, while Air Maldives concentrated on domestic operations, a rather bizarre interlude played out. An airline named Maldives Airways, IATA code MQ, which appears to have been largely funded by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) started scheduled operations in 1984 using two Douglas DC- 8-51 aircraft.
The actual nature of this operation remains unclear, with only one regular route flown,
between Malé and Dubai. While the two aircraft appeared to spend an abnormal amount of time in Malé, rumours abounded about illegal activities including arms-smuggling being carried out, but these were never proved. Maldives Airways ceased operations in 1986.
There is some speculation that the reason Air Maldives (AMI) concentrated on domestic operations was to support MQ, but again this cannot be proven.
Another attempt was made in 2010 to tap into the lucrative tourist traffic to the Maldives by a local airline. MEGA Maldives Airlines (a.k.a. Mega Maldives)
commenced operations with a domestic flight to Gan island, formerly a strategic Royal Navy and, later, Royal Air Force base located on the southern Addu Atoll.
Using a mixed fleet of Boeing 737, 757 and 767 jetliners Mega Maldives commenced international flights to Hong Kong in 2011, subsequently expanding its route network to Beijing and Shanghai, with seasonal services to secondary Chinese cities and Seoul, South Korea. However, operations were suspended in May 2017.
Founded in 2000 as Island Aviation Services after the abrupt demise of Air Maldives (AMI), this airline (IATA Q2, ICAO DQA) initially concentrated on domestic routes flying Dornier Do 228 and De Havilland Dash 8 Series 200 (DHC-8-200) airplanes. Vital transport links between the islands were thus maintained.
Using De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter floatplanes DQA began servicing the resorts being built on the outer islands of the archipelago, a lucrative niche market for these luxury destinations.
Rebranded ‘Maldivian’ in August 2008, the airline began international flights using an Airbus A320 and also acquired more Bombardiers, a Dash 8-Q200 and Q300 aircraft for domestic operations.
With a route network that includes Dhaka (Bangladesh), Bangkok and a number of secondary Chinese cities, Maldivian operates over 20 aircraft, including 12 Twin Otters.
A short-lived domestic carrier based on Gan island (ICAO EQU), Air Equator employed a sole Fairchild F-27 in 2003 flying to other airports in the archipelago. Initially owned by Maldivian entrepreneurs, the airline was funded for a brief while by a Sri Lankan group (SPA Aviation) until ceasing operations in 2005. The aircraft remains at Gan’s airport, a forlorn sight still painted in the blue and white livery of Air Equator.
Little is known of this also short-lived outfit (IATA code OCR) that appears to have operated a single Antonov An-24 registered in Bulgaria. It is recorded as being in existence from 2000 to 2002 but whether it was a domestic or cargo operator cannot be established clearly. It is not associated with Oceanair of Puerto Rico (USA) bearing IATA code TJ.
Trans Maldivian Airways
As tourist traffic to the Maldives increased exponentially, new high-end resorts were built on islands a considerable distance from the main international airport on Hulhulé. This led to the very lucrative business of flying tourists to these resorts in seaplanes or floatplanes.
Beginning life as a helicopter operator in 1989 named Hummingbird Airways, the company was renamed Trans Maldivian Airways (IATA M8, ICAO TMW)) in 2000. Together with its main competitor, Maldivian Air Taxi (IATA MV, ICAO MAT), these two operators deployed the sturdy and reliable float-equipped DHC-6 Twin Otter to establish a very profitable duopoly in this niche market. Using foreign capital they were able to expand quickly and outpace Maldivian (DQA), who were the pioneers in this niche market. So successful were the two operators, that an American private equity firm, Blackstone Group, purchased both airlines and merged them in 2013, retaining the Trans Maldivian Airways brand.
Today, Trans Maldivian Airways now owned by Bain Capital another Private Equity firm, is the world’s largest operator of the Twin Otter and is very profitable.
This is a good example of how the airline industry rewards the focused, cost conscious, efficient operator that concentrates on a niche market and perfects the product through consolidation.
As we have seen, in a nation composed of isolated island groups, conducive to air transport, TMW is the only Maldives-based airline that has managed to survive and be profitable in this extremely competitive industry. This is despite the nation’s record growth in high-end tourism in possibly the country with the largest number of wealthy inbound tourists. (Featured image shows the TMA base near Male’ International Airport)