World’s largest seaplane operator goes without flying for first time as coronavirus upends Maldives tourism

Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) has been flying in the skies of Maldives for two decades. Not a day has gone by without the airline’s seaplanes cruising above the Maldives’ turquoise waters.

That changed on Sunday; the airline had zero flights on what would otherwise be referred to as a ‘Super Sunday’ due to the high volume of tourist arrivals and air traffic!

But ‘Super Sundays’ are no more. As the novel coronavirus spreads around the world, tourism and air travel has come to a virtual halt.

Between shelter-in-place orders, border closures, travel bans, and social distancing advisories, demand for air travel has also plummeted, leading airlines to suspend routes, cancel flights, ground huge portions of their fleets, and give early retirements to older planes.

The Maldivian aviation industry is no exception.

Almost all the domestic carriers, which fly more tourists than locals, have suspended commercial flight operations, owing to a slump in tourist arrivals due to a blanket suspension of on-arrival visa.

Before the pandemic, the government had been bullish about tourism prospects, targeting two million, high-spending holidaymakers this year after last year’s record 1.7 million.

However, tourist arrivals saw a year-over-year decline of 22.8 per cent in the first 10 days of March. Officials say the number of tourist arrivals to the Maldives could drop by half in 2020.

With arrival numbers falling and the visa suspension in effect, several resorts across the Maldives had been closed.

That’s bad news for domestic airlines, especially seaplane operators whose operations are solely dependant on tourists!

TMA has been forced to ground half of its 57-aircraft fleet, as there is little to no flying. The airline’s iconic white and red Twin Otter aircraft can now be seen stored at the eastern apron of Velana International Airport.

TMA started in 1989 as a company operating a helicopter fleet under the name Hummingbird Island Helicopters.

Eight years later, the name was changed to Hummingbird Island Airways, as the first seaplane was added to the fleet. The transition to a seaplane-only fleet was completed in 1999. A year later, the name Trans Maldivian Airways came to be, and still today represents a synonym for connecting the Maldives islands.

In February 2013, Blackstone, one of the world’s leading investment and advisory firms, acquired controlling stakes in TMA and its sole competitor Maldivian Air Taxi (MAT), and merged the two under the TMA brand.

A consortium led by US-based Bain Capital and Chinese conglomerate Tempus Group had in 2017 bought TMA from Blackstone for around $550 million.

TMA currently operates an all-amphibian fleet of 57 Twin Otter aircraft on regular flights throughout the Maldivian archipelago, making it the largest seaplane operator in the world.

On March 8, Maldives reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus, as two hotel employees tested positive for Covid-19 at a luxury resort in the archipelago.

Seventeen more cases — all foreigners working or staying resorts and liveaboard vessels except four Maldivians who had returned from the United Kingdom — were later identified.

However, 13 out of the 17 have made full recoveries. The four Maldivian patients are being treated at designated quarantine facilities, whilst the other two had been repatriated to their home country of Italy.

The Maldives announced a state of public health emergency on March 12, the first such declaration under a recent public health protection law.

The public health emergency declaration has allowed the government to introduce a series of unprecedented restrictive and social distancing measures, including a partial curfew in capital Male and its suburbs, and a nationwide closing of schools, colleges and universities. Non-essential services and public places in the capital such as gyms, cinemas and parks have also been shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital have been asked to stop dine-in service and switch to takeaway and delivery.

A nationwide shutdown of all guesthouses, city hotels and spa facilities located on inhabited islands is also in effect.

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