As the point of entry for nearly all international arrivals to the Maldives, the Velana International Airport (VIA) is at the very heart of an unprecedented tourism boom, facing multiple challenges in logistics, safety and human resources, while itself being constrained by the borders of the small, but growing island in which it stands. Managing director Moosa Solih explains how the Maldives Airport Company Limited (MACL) answered these issues, while advancing with the much awaited airport expansion.
What challenges does the growth in volume of international visitors pose for MACL?
We cater to 35 international airlines that connect Maldives to 40 destinations. We are seeing nearly 7 percent growth on international passengers and the passenger capacity of the airport will increase from 3 million today to 7.5 million in the coming years. There are a number of unique infrastructural challenges that we must face in order to accommodate this. Indeed, in the Maldives, the airport is located on a separate island, which means we are subject to strict space constraints. For instance, we are developing the new runway next to the existing one and we had to reclaim 64 hectares of land in order to create space for it. It also required the relocation of the seaplane operations, which meant reclaiming another 1.8 hectares of land. This continuous reorganization of facilities in order to grow was extremely challenging, but with proper planning and by hiring the right people, we have minimized the difficulties. Another challenge is finding qualified manpower, which is why we intend to build a training institute specialized in the aviation sector. We have an extraordinary team, a combination of both domestic and international expertise.
Can you tell us about some of the features that will be present in the expanded airport?
A lot will change. Aircraft parking space will more than double, the new international passenger terminal will be three times as big and equipped with all the latest technology. The new runway will be big enough to land A380 aircrafts. The present runway will be turned into a taxiway, which will minimize our runway occupancy time from approximately 15 minutes to just 3.
8% annual growth in domestic passengers in 2018
6.8% annual growth in international passengers in 2018
What is behind the growth in domestic travelling?
Both domestic cargo and passenger transfers are growing at a rate of 8 percent per year. Maritime transport is lengthy, inconvenient and at times inexistent due to weather conditions. We have recorded that more nationals are using air travel to connect to different parts of the country. To deal with that rise in demand, we are planning to move the domestic seaplane terminal to what is today the international terminal.
What role can other international airports in the Maldives play?
They could greatly help reduce the pressure of air traffic at VIA, as we are now handling 99 percent of air travelers. Tourism growth has increased in the southern and northern atolls. Better international airports in the country would not only be a relief for VIA, they would also improve the travelers’ experience by avoiding transfers.
What challenges will the growth in the luxury tourism sector pose in the future?
There are around 14 new luxury resorts coming up in 2019 and finding land for lounge spaces is a challenge. The demand for seaplane parking space is on the rise and each high-end resort wants to have their own aircraft. Our new seaplane terminal will be opening in Q3 and we fear it will soon become too small for our needs. Despite those limitations, we need to be able to provide a high-end service, as we are the gateway for all high-end tourism in the country.
What are your expectations for MACL in the next 5 years?
In the next 5 years, we will improve our team and our service standards. I want our ground handling services to be at IATA service level B and I want to have a proper training center for aviation related training. Regarding infrastructure, some of the major works, including the new runway, the new seaplane terminal along with the maintenance and repair facility and the first phase of the new CIP/VIP building will be done in 2019. The new cargo terminal, fuel farm, aircraft apron space and CIP/VIP building will be completed by 2020. We are also expecting the new international passenger terminal to be operational by 2023. I can proudly say that even now, some of the buildings, like the new airline office complex, the new CCR building or the new water supply building are already completed. Therefore, I am expecting this airport to become a world-class international gateway within the next 5 years.