A pilot's tale: flying in the Maldives

The latest addition to Maldivian's fleet  8Q-IAR (ex-ANA)

The latest addition to Maldivian's fleet 8Q-IAR (ex-ANA)

Allplane likes to invite contributors covering different aspects of the airline industry, in this article, a Bombardier Dash 8 Q300 pilot explains his experience flying in the Maldives.

By Salvador Artigas

Paradise on earth. The sunny side of life. These are some of the slogans used by tour operators to refer to the Maldives.

When you hear about the Maldives, most likely the first thing that comes to your mind is an image of beautiful sand beaches...and, yes, the Maldives is about beautiful beaches, but also about many other aspects that most people are usually not much aware of.

From Barcelona to the Maldives

I will introduce myself. My name is Salvador Artigas, and I am originally from Barcelona, but I am currently flying Dash 8 Q300/200 aircraft for the national carrier of the Maldives.

I currently hold a JAA-ATPL plane license and...very important considering where I live... :) I also have the Scuba Diving PADI license. Yes. The latter one is a must if you live over here!

In this article I will try to explain how is it like to live here, in the Maldives, while working for its largest airline and making a living out of flying to this archipelago's myriad of islands.

Life in the Maldives

Not many people on earth can say they are almost as tall than the highest point in their country, but, then, it turns out that the highest point of the Maldives is just 2 meters above sea level.

The country is made of 1,190 islands, grouped in different atolls that are located north and south of the equator line

The country is made of 1,190 islands, grouped in different atolls that are located north and south of the equator line

However, it is one of the most mountainous countries in the world under the water. With an incredible wild life and with a perfect water temperature of around 28 degrees Celsius all year-round, The Maldives are considered to be one of the top three countries in the world for snorkeling and scuba-diving. Here you can see from inmense whale sharks to small turtles or stingrays.

Back on the surface...the Maldives are located right in the Indian Ocean just west of South India. Another interesting fact about it, is that, despite its small land surface, this country spans quite a large area from its Northern tip to its Southernmost island, making of air travel a vital necessity.

The capital, Malé, is the world’s most densely populated city (even more than Tokyo or Hong Kong), with 150,000 people crammed in a surface of around 6km2.

The Maldivian economy relies basically on fishing (it is known for its tasty tuna) and tourism. The Maldives have some of the best resorts in the world. A few years ago, the country decided to steer towards quality tourism instead of quantity. It has paid off so far.

Seaplane territory

If Male is small, its airport can’t be any different.

An aerial view of Male and its airport, on the nearby island

An aerial view of Male and its airport, on the nearby island

Ibrahim Nassir International Airport (MLE/VRMM) is a gateway to paradise, as it channels holidaymakers to the several resort islands...

Despite its size, (with only one runway 18/36 with no taxiway) the airport is operating at nearly full capacity.

You rarelly see any medium-sized aircraft at Malé, as passenger come from afar in large wide-body airliners such as the 747, 777, 767, 330 or 340s or they transfer to the resorts in a fleet of local airlines’ Dash 8s and ATRs, and, what is very distinctive of the Maldives: the seaplanes.

There are more than 60 seaplanes operating all day long from sunrise to sunset feeding the nearest resorts with thousands of travellers every day.

TMA is the biggest seaplane company in the world, with a fleet of around 50 seaplanes, it has more daily operations than other important seaplane bases like Vancouver, BC or those on the Adriatic coast of Europe. They are currently looking for expansion oportunities.

Maldivian (the company I work for and the national carrier) has also a fleet of 6 seaplanes, that are operated with the same configuration of a 15-seater Twin Otter aircraft. The nearest resorts can also be reached by speedboat.

Airlines of the Maldives

Four companies are based in Male’s international airport. Aside from TMA, we find MEGA Maldives, a regular charter airline flying medium-haul routes with its 767 and 757s to destinations such as Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong or Palau. It is another growing airline that has just received its fifth aircraft.

Another Maldivian company is Villa Air, also known as FlyMe (not to be confused with the British FlyBe). This is a regular airline but only serving its own network of resorts (Villa Air group resorts) in Dharavandhoo and Maamigili, both only half hour away from Male. Currently they are planning to bring in another ATR to join the other two that are already operational.

Last but not least, Maldivian, the flag carrier of the Maldives.

Maldivian received its first Airbus A321 earlier this year

Maldivian received its first Airbus A321 earlier this year

Maldivian operates three types of aircraft, each serving one specific market segment.  One Airbus A320 and one A321 to serve the fast-growing Chinese and East Asian markets, this company operates them on ETOPs (Extended-range Twin-operation Performance Standards) routes off to Bangkok in Thailand; Chongqing, Wuhan, Nanjing, Changsha and Xi’an in China; as well as Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh, and Chennai and Trivandrum in India (this last one also served by both the Airbus and Dash 8 fleet).

For regional operations within the Maldives, Maldivian has 5 Dash 8 Q300’s and 2 Dash 8 Q200’s (having 50 and 37 seats respectively). By the way, those caring about airline meals, might like to known that food is only served on international routes (a small sandwich in economy, and a normal Business class meal in the front rows). There is not a choice of spirit drinks on-board as the Maldives is a Muslim country.

Airports of the Maldives

Having introduced the country and its airlines, it is time for me to introduce Allplane’s readers to our airports, which, by the way, are often difficult to tell from one another, not only because of the shape of their runways (the majority have a length of 4,000 feet), but also because their names can become really confusing for foreigners.

The airports of the Maldives are, from North to South:

(HAQ/VRMH) Hanimaadhoo International airport, Runways 03/21

This is probably one of the smallest international airports in the World. With a runway of just 4,000 feet, it has a twice-weekly service to Trivandrum (TRV/VOTV) that continues down to Male via Dharavandhoo.

(IFU/VREI) Ifuru Airport, Runways 18/36

I have to admit I have only been there once and it was at night, so I cannot say much about this airport, other than it was inaugurated recently (July 2015) and it has, probably, the nicest terminal in the whole country, including a resort-like terminal hall.

(DRV/VRMD) Dharavandhoo Airport, Runways 12/30

This is the second busiest airport in the Maldives, with two airlines flying in (FlyMe and Maldivian) more than 12-times a day. It has also a very busy airspace, as many seaplanes fly just overhead en-route to their final resort destinations, some TA/RA advisories recently have brought Maldivian Civil Aviation authorities to change some operational procedures in order to be able to separate traffics better.

(MLE/VRMM) Male International Airport, Runways 18/36

This is the busiest airport in the Indian Ocean, having hundreds of long-haul aircraft flying over its airspace en-route to Australia from the Middle East and from Asia to Africa.

Airlines at Male airport

Some significant companies flying into Male are: (Star Alliance) Air India, Austrian Airlines (seasonal), Turkish Airlines or Singapore Airlines; (One world) Sri Lankan, Qatar Airways or Cathay Pacific; (Sky Team) Korean Air, Aeroflot or China Eastern. Also Emirates, China Hainan, Edelweiss and Trans Aero fly in:

(VAM/VRMV) Maamigili International Airport, Runways 27/09

This is where Villa Air has its hangars and where they are considering moving its headquarters to. Opened in 2011 and upgraded to international status in 2013, the runway is one of the longest in the Maldives with around 6000’ of length. Future plans include expanding the runway to be able to receive more international flights and also being a parking airport for private jets landing in Male (parking at MLE is extremely expensive, with the result of most private jets flying to Gan Airport until they are called up to fly in position at MLE).

(TMF/VRNT) Thimarafushi Airport. Runways 04/22

This is a really fun airport to fly in. There are no PAPI (Precision Approach Path Indicator lights) and no runway lights. No night operation is allowed and it is not an ICAO-approved airport. It is only served by Maldivian. Judge by yourself:

(KDO/VRMK) Kadhdhoo Airport. Runways 03/21

Inaugurated in 1986, this is one of the most veteran airports in the Maldives. It serves many of the resorts around. It is also a very nice airport to land at:

(GKK/VRMO) Kooddoo Airport. Runways 18/36

One hour away from Male, heading South we find Kooddoo airport which is currently undergoing runway extension works. 

(KDM/VRMT) Kaadedhdhoo Airport. Runways 16/34

Probably the most beautiful airport in the whole country. If you are lucky enough you can even see fish from the plane. The landscape you see upon approaching it is just sensational. It is operated by Villa Group, but only Maldivian is flying there at the moment.

(FVM/VRMR) Fuvahmulah Airport. Runway 11/29

This airport is already in the southern hemisphere. It is only served once daily in the evening. It has the shortest runway in the Maldives. On certain dates you might fly via Gan Airport. At night it is quite difficult to land due to poor runway lights.

(GAN/VRMG) Gan International Airport. Runway 28/10

This is the oldest airport in the Maldives. Originally a British militar base, it was used by the brits to fly down to Australia. It used to be a strategic point for transoceanic flights for many years. Now it is under renovation and runway extension at the end of runway 28.

When its renovation is completed, this airport will be able to welcome aircraft the size of an Airbus 330. It is placed in the southernmost tip of the Maldives. To the South of Gan, there is only the US Diego Garcia military base. Some inhabitants claimed to have seen a big airliner flying at low altitude when MH370 vanished.

During the Christmas period, you can see up to 15 private jets here, waiting to be re-positioned at Male. Certainly it is not Maho beach or Samedan, but plane spotters might enjoy it a lot!

A pilot’s life in the tropics

People often ask me: how is life in paradise?

Well, considering the fact that I come from Southern Europe, the contrast is maybe not that extreme. As people here, like in Spain, like to be outside. This happens particularly when the sun goes down. Temperatures here are the most difficult thing to adapt to. The Dash 8 is a Canadian aircraft, so let’s say it is not very well prepared to be in the sun. No window blinds installed plus no chance of opening the windows can me oneself feel like a piece of meat on the grill.

Regarding food: Bye bye being a foodie unless you have time and money to spend time in a resort. Here, one has a “wide range of choices”: You can choose between rice and noodles or chicken and tuna.

Maldivians have also their own treats called “Mashuni” (a type of dry tuna mixed with chilli, coconut and onion; actually very good), “hedika” of fried shorties (very fried but tasty) and the world famous “Suppari” or “Maldivian nuts” (something you can chew all day long and tastes like wood). As most food comes from overseas, there is not that much choice of foods in the Maldives. I specially miss fresh milk, cheeses, Spanish ham or simply a good steak.

We are talking of the capital here, this is not the case of the resorts, though, as you can find all sorts of foods and, even, wines there.

When it comes to the professional experience as a pilot, though, I would consider the Maldives an ideal place to learn flying.

The Dash 8 is a very gentle aircraft, very stable, but complex at the same time. Maldivian model has only one FMS on the captain side and autopilot is only for the Navigation mode and Altitude holding.

There is no auto-thrust so you have to be aware of the power throughout the whole flight. Two of our aircraft have the function of the Vertical Nav and Lateral Nav for approaches in bad weather, which is, actually, really helpful specially during the rainy season, when it can start raining extremely hard in a matter of minutes or seconds, sometimes on short finals.

Our work schedule is quite interesting. We have a roster of 77 days on 14 off, which means 14 days off every two months. The company has no agreements with other airlines, though, so we have to pay our own full fare tickets back and forth. However, while we are in the Maldives, our schedule (at least mine) is very light, flying something like 3-4 days on a typical week, and then being on stand by at home for another 2-3 days, plus one day off every 6 days.

One of the perks of the job...

One of the perks of the job...

About the accommodation, in my case I live in a residential area attached to the airport island, served by a bus that runs every half an hour, called Hulhumale. Life here is very relaxed compared to the hassle of the capital Male, that, at times, can feel noisier than New York!

Unexpectedly for me, given the very constrained space in the island, people have cars. Some of them have even a Lamborghini or a Jaguar...very “useful” when the longest straight distance in Male is just 1,5km and there are over 500 bikes moving along on it (special mention to the fact that you will not see any old bikes or old phones. I have never seen so many iPhone6s in a short lapse of time in my life!) People here make sure they get the latest and poshest gadgets!

Another thing that shocked me it was the shops opening time schedules, that are quite unpredictable, to say the least, even if they are written in a notice board right by the shop’s entrance.

The Maldives are located between Africa and India and has received the influence of many cultures. It just became independent 50 years ago. However, once you get to know them and they get to know you, you see Maldivians are one of a kind, they do not ressemble their Indian neighbours.

As they say: Always Maldivian, Forever Independent.