Exclusive Interview with Ishan Munaweera

Ishan Munaweera, assistant vice president of Aviation Services Pvt Ltd talks exclusively to Hotelier Maldives about business post-pandemic.

Aviation Services Pvt Ltd is an airline representation company offering a one-stop shop for any airline who wishes to visit the Maldives. Offering all services to enable an airline to operate to Maldives from supervision, sales and marketing, office space and support with local authorities for licensing and staffing requirements and located in the capital Male’.

IndiGo, represented by Aviation Services was the first Indian airline to commence scheduled flights on the day Maldives re-opened for the South Asian countries, on 15 July 2021, with flights arriving from Cochin, Bangalore and Mumbai. Operating for IndiGo – the largest airline by far in India, on 21 July, Aviation Services recommenced its Delhi flights to add to the three sectors they already operate, with four flights a week and is now at 100 per cent capacity with daily flights to all four main Indian cities to and from Maldives. To put this into context, IndiGo flights operated until the recent lockdown imposed in May, banning the South Asian passengers arriving in the Maldives and caused a lull of two months. During the lockdown, the company operated charters to and from Cochin to enable passengers to travel hassle free during this difficult period.

New flights launched

IndiGo launched flights direct from Male’ to Chennai and Hyderabad for the first time on 21 August to give the airline the highest connectivity from Maldives to India. With six destinations in India covered from Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Cochin, Chennai and Hyderabad. Additionally, Chennai has two flights a week and Hyderabad three flights a week.

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All other destinations are operated with a daily frequency. From 15 October, the company mentioned that IndiGo will increase to three flights from Chennai per week and four from Hyderabad making it five flights a day between India and Maldives.

The company also represents Etihad the flagship carrier of UAE. The national carrier operates daily flights to/from Maldives connecting major destinations across the globe via its hub Abu Dhabi, including European sectors, US, Canada and Middle East. According to Munaweera, flights operated unhindered with the recent restrictions. Aviation Services is looking forward to welcoming its other partner carriers such as Alitalia, China Southern, US Bangla and Himalaya within the upcoming months. They are also looking forward to a more established partnership with these carries for the future. For Alitalia, they are the GSA as well for the national carrier of Italy and they hope flights resume this winter with its usual schedules connecting Milan and Rome from November to April.

Pandemic reflections

“We are doing well within our business model and cannot grumble given the current situation effecting the entire world and we hope things will get better as time goes by and we come to terms with the pandemic and move forward,” he said.

“The challenges of the last year have been no different to anyone else in the aviation and tourism industries given the fact that these are among the worst affected industries across the world.  This impacted many livelihoods in the process and leaving many without a permanent stream of income. Another major factor is the direct impact of the soaring USD exchange rates and the drop in business due to the lesser demand for travel vs the ample flying options. To put it in other words the pie become smaller whilst the stomachs to feed has increased. This effect is felt more in markets such as Maldives where the outbound segment is very low and is heavily impacted by the restrictions and the lockdowns imposed in other destinations which we used to see clients travelling in the past.

“The pandemic has given us many perspectives, some good – some challenging. Most importantly, it made us stronger and smarter as a human race. We have been thrown into the pot of fire and this has helped us to understand business in a different perspective and to look at new and innovative ways and means to cater to the market and the demand. We have not faltered in this and maintained our business and managed to keep all our clients happy to the best of our ability within the boundaries of the present situations. We have new challenges now and we have worked out on how to deal with these and make sure we are geared to service a new world, a post covid world, it’s all about how you adjust your mind and yourself to see a better world.”

Recovery

So will we simply have to learn to live with all this or we will actually see the end to the pandemic and go back to doing business as before?Well as I see it, like it or not, things will never be the same. The business models will be quite different and so will the customer needs, recovery of businesses have already started. We closed the year on a positive note for 2020. It’s how we look at the situation and how we can counter it to increase our business and make profits.

“It’s been a up and down process, I cannot literally recall how many times I have adjusted the yearly P&L forecasting as we are in a stage where we cannot predict what tomorrow will bring to our plates. The present situation is utterly dynamic and very unpredictable. Our main markets open, close or are restrictive. Changes come thick and fast with new regulations introduced almost daily and sometime overnight with very less warnings. We must be alert, and we need to be prepared to accept these changes and counter these matters for the betterment of the company. These are very trying months and more to come until we see the silver lining in the dark clouds.”

He cautioned, “The industry has suffered immensely, and we are not even closer to pre-pandemic levels, and we may not see these levels soon. It is of course a balancing act in a way, as there have been many airlines which have gone into liquidation, and many have seized the opportunity to launch new airlines or subsidiaries. IATA is predicting 2021 to be around the figure of 52 per cent vs 2019 and I believe to get back to normal levels we will have to wait until 2023, and that too if we are able to deal with this pandemic situation and bring a close to it and get a handle on the situation.

“The cancellations of flights for many months, covering the overheads of the company whilst we had a zero-income due to the lockdown and restrictions has been the main challenge, yet we have managed to overcome all these issues with strategic thinking and actions thus managing to deliver a positive P&L at the end of 2020 and looking forward to a successive 2021 as well, which is currently on track with our forecasting.

“The company has been in business since 2016 and it has been an upwards trend for us since the inception and 2021 looks fairly on track with our goals.”

Aviation Services work very closely with the entire industry and are tied up with most of the Travel Agents and Tour Operators. “The agencies can access our inventory and make bookings, issue their tickets and service their clientele and we are 24/7 available to assist them in case of any troubleshooting is required.”

Are PCR Tests here to stay?

“Most educated travellers will agree that, taking a PCR test is for your own safety and that of the others around you and your own family. Even though a negative PCR does not mean your 100 per cent Covid free or safe, I would be more concerned if an airline accepted passengers without a negative RTPCR report being produced by the traveller from a reputed entity. People are still afraid of travel yes, and most would turn a blind eye, but as all pandemics, or near pandemic situations, terror attacks or natural disasters, travel has picked up in a short time and we see that happening even right now. I believe the main effect for travel will be the disposable income of the leisure traveller or the corporates budget allocated for such matters with the world economies crashing and feeling the pinch. The airlines represented by Aviation Services operate with stringent protocols in line with the highest industry standards associated with many regulatory bodies, from cleaning of the aircrafts, disinfecting to the onboard utilises and the equipment along with the replacement of the filters onboard the aircrafts to maintain the highest standards set forth by the authorities and even going beyond. Even the crew, airline staff at airports and any others concerned and connected to the operations are tested many times and made sure the risk factors are bare minimal.”

Looking ahead to the future

The company is eagerly anticipating the launch of TSM (Travel Services (Pvt) Ltd) under Best Buy Maldives – a new and interesting concept, again a one-stop shop alike ASM (Aviation Service Maldives). They will offer services to customers, the resorts, the corporates, the individuals whilst targeting key areas such as medical tourism, vacation hunters, pilgrim travellers and expats.

He rounded this interview saying “2022 will be a good challenge for me and the team on the ASM and TSM fronts as we are looking at few more airlines on the passenger and cargo fronts to be launched under our wing making our portfolio larger and more lucrative. These steps are presently being finalized and we hope we will have a positive outcome of all this, and our aspirations and goals will be completed before the middle of next year. I’m hoping this will be a great challenge and a year to look forward to. I’m a firm believer in a saying ‘Effort is important but knowing where to make it makes the difference.”

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