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Villa Air slams MACL over seaplane terminal snub

Fathmath Shaahunaz
20 February 2020, MVT 15:38
An aircraft of FlyMe, operated by Villa Air, lands at VIA. FILE PHOTO/MIHAARU
Fathmath Shaahunaz
20 February 2020, MVT 15:38

Amidst the ongoing controversy over Maldives Airports Company Ltd (MACL)'s prickly seaplane terminal deal, Villa Air slammed them on Thursday as being "biased" for refusing to allocate a plot from the terminal to the local aviation firm.

A subsidiary of Jumhooree Party leader Qasim Ibrahim's conglomerate Villa Group, Villa Air lodged its initial request at MACL on February 14, 2013, two years after the company debuted in the domestic aviation sector in 2011. Villa Air had sought a plot of 4,500 square metres from airport island Hulhule's east coast, to be leased to the company at the standard market rate.

At the time, seaplanes were operated from Hulhule' by both Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) and Maldivian Air Taxi (MAT). The two were later merged in 2013 to form the present TMA.

Villa Air's Managing Director Abdulla Nashid disclosed on Thursday that MACL neither responded to their letters nor provided an explanation for snubbing the request Villa Air made seven years ago.

He noted that Villa Air had earlier acquired an aircraft in order to expand into the seaplane sector. However, Villa Air's seaplane had to be docked at the airport developed in Maamigili, the home island of Qasim Ibrahim, and was later sold off to a foreign firm as Villa Air could not get authorisation to commence seaplane operations. Nashid stated this cost the company a loss of USD 4.2 million (MVR 64 million).

Nashid went on to accuse MACL of bias, highlighting that the airports company has agreed to lease space from the seaplane terminal to Manta Air, a domestic airline that debuted in early 2019.

"The issue is not that they are leasing to Manta Air, but they didn't lease to us. And we still don't know the reason for it", he said.

The managing director expressed his belief that MACL acted as such to protect the personal interests of its board members, saying, "Villa Air didn't get cooperation because [MACL's] board is made up of certain businessmen".

The issue of conflict of interest was previously brought up by the parliamentary Public Finance Committee, during the meetings recently held to discuss MACL's contentious deal to hand over the majority of the new seaplane terminal to TMA. During the sessions, it was highlighted that MACL's board is chaired by Mohamed Umar Manik (MU Manik), father to one of the shareholders of Manta Air. Board members also include close associates of local tycoon, Champa Hussain Afeef, who was once the majority shareholder of TMA.

Despite accusations that MACL's board was thus biased towards certain entities, during a recent sit-down with the committee, Manta Air's CEO Mohamed Khaleel denied that MU Manik was favouring Manta Air and protecting its interests.

Villa Air's Nashid further revealed on Thursday that MACL generated an annual revenue of USD 5 million from Villa Air's FlyMe airline operations.

"To date, we have paid USD 36 million (MVR 555 million) to MACL," he stated, detailing the revenue generated for MACL via Villa Air's regional operations.

He asserted confidence that Villa Air made as much profit for MACL as TMA, and maintained that MACL's decision to refuse Villa Air thus constituted a deliberate obstruction to the local company's expansion and growth.

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