Aviation industry has played a major role in every business since its beginning. With the global outbreak of COVID-19, the industry was greatly affected and had to cease operations for months now.
Ahmed Arshad has been working in the aviation industry for almost 15 years. Having started his career in the field as an Operation Executive at Inner Maldives Holidays in 2005, Arshad is now the Director of ground operations at Avia Maldives. Established to meet the comprehensive needs in the aviation and tourism industry, Avia Maldives is a leading ground handling and travel service agent in Maldives.
During these unprecedented times due to the global pandemic, Avia Maldives has been handling the operations of various repatriation and cargo flights. Since the lockdown, Avia Maldives has managed to repatriate over 1500 individuals back to their home countries from Maldives.
We asked Arshad about the impact of the pandemic on the aviation industry and ongoing operations during this challenging time. Here is what he has to say.
1. How did you get into working in the aviation industry?
Arshad: I believe the first job I had was the first major influence to the industry. I was working at Inner Maldives in the aviation department at that time. That was the first step into the industry. Even before that, I did have much interest for the aviation industry.
2. How would you describe your journey in the industry (with the challenges and the growth you have seen during your time)?
Arshad: I was exposed to the industry at a very young age. One of the main obstacles was facing the industry at such a young age. It is difficult to be taken seriously when you are younger, despite having good ideas. That was at the beginning stage though.
After that, my partner and i managed to start Avia Maldives in 2011. The future I saw was to establish a company that was more dedicated to aviation. Where we could deliver tailor-made packages and services aimed particularly to high-end clients. That is the first thing we did in Avia Maldives.
Throughout the journey with Avia Maldives, one of the most challenging things at initial stage was funding. I believe that was one of the most key difficulties during then. Throughout the industry, when establishing a start-up, getting funds in Maldives is a difficult task unlike in most countries. I am proud to say we have seen tremendous growth since then. I think the principle which we started with; ‘to provide a trustworthy and quality service with trained staff’ helped us grow. Till date, we follow this. I think because of the set principle, the clients we started with has still been with us all these years.
What we do is personalizing our services and give extra attention to the clients. For example, if we know a client owns a recording company and loves music, so we will make sure he/she receives a souvenir which he can take into consideration like a Maldivian Music Album. That how we look into detail when into clients.”Ahmed Arshad, Director of Ground Operation, Avia Maldives
3. Where do you think Avia Maldives stands right now?
Arshad: I believe we are doing really well. By numbers, we can say we are one of the leading companies in the industry based in Maldives . During the first season when we started, we did about 20 to 30 movements and right now we are doing more than 500.
4. The aviation industry has been almost entirely shut down due to the pandemic. Did you ever imagine a situation of this extent to occur during your life time?
Arshad: I don’t think anyone in any industry would have imagined such a situation. I never thought we would be witnessing a day like this.
5. How big of a shock was the impact of the pandemic on the travel industry for you?
Arshad: It is quite devastating because this particular year started off with a very positive vibe. The growth we saw by numbers were very good. We were looking at around 75% increment in the number of operations throughout the year and that was very constant within the first two months. We had a growth of around 80% within the first month and 75% in the second month. Even with cancellations in February, we managed to gain 75% growth. However, things started to change in March as the borders closed around the world and in Maldives.
6. How has Avia Maldives been handling the operations of repatriation flights?
Arshad: We did manage to repatriate over 1300 passengers for Indonesia, Bhutan and Poland, and we still have some more planned for this month. We also did some inbound cargo and managed to be a part of the operation to bring back some Maldivians stuck in Indonesia.
7. What are the safety precautions that are strictly being implemented to ensure the wellbeing of the passengers, crew and staff members?
Arshad: For the crew and passengers, the major steps will be taken by MACL as they are the ground handler. For us, we are mainly focusing on training our staff members. We have already been seeking some training for our staff and train them to work in an environment adhering to the regulations and standards set by WHO and HPA . Even from day one, before it was mandatory to wear masks and gloves and use sanitation, we implemented those measures to our staff. What we do is we try to research the market and we try to follow what the leaders and follow their models. For our clients, we will practice social distancing and if the crew require anything, we do provide what we can and we will continue doing what we do best.
8. What is your prediction for the Maldivian aviation industry for the remaining months of the year?
Arshad: I think aviation in Maldives and around the world is at the lowest compared to the past years. The starting will definitely be very slow. I think domestic operations will be back to normal but international operations and charter airlines will take some time to operate the same way they did before the pandemic. Our main target is elite tourism, which I think will pick up very soon. I believe people who were travelling in first class previously would tend to go and fly private once the borders open, as it provides a more controlled environment. It is safer and easier to travel private than commercial.
9. What are the plans in action to recover from the impact of COVID-19 and resume regular operations?
Arshad: I think most of the recovery will be done by hoteliers because they are the leaders in the industry. I have seen some hotels coming up with full hotel hires and more options for clients. I think this is something we should practice from now on, because there are people who wants to travel and if the whole island is to up for grab, they will take the opportunity. This is one way we can come back stronger after the pandemic.
10. Do you think travel would once again be the same as before or would you say it would drastically change after the pandemic?
Arshad: It would definitely take time. To begin with, it will be very difficult for us. What we try to do is greet our clients with a warm smile and a handshake which we cannot do for a long time. There will be drastic changes, obviously. But I think we will learn and adapt to new norms. After this, I believe the new normal will be the normal.
11. There must be a lot of challenges for a company like Avia Maldives in a small place like Maldives, not only because of the pandemic but with the competition and regulations. What do you think needs to be implemented for companies like Avia Maldives to grow?
Arshad: There are basically ways governments can help companies to grow. One of the key area is to allow more of our physical presence at the airport. We have been trying to do that for quite sometime now. Most of our colleagues who work abroad have their own offices and their own vehicles based at the airport. This eases the operations a lot. Most of the time sole ground handlers are ones who are dealing with all the traffic coming into the country which includes Commercial / Scheduled and Domestic operations. So basically they are very busy. However, Avia Maldives focuses on a specific part of the operations so that we can give more attention to the arriving clients. We can have our staff and vehicles on standby when they arrive hence can minimize the wait. I think this is something which needs to be looked into if we are focusing on targeting the elite market.
We still have a lot of scope to grow. As Maldives now boasts 7-star hotels, the services needs to match upon arrival to departure. The gateway is the first impression and the last. Hotels may keep up with excellent services but the cherry on top of the cake are services extended from the airport. If it is a bad departure, it would leave a huge impact on his or her decision of coming back to Maldives again. Our main goal is to make the service memorable and welcome the guests again. We will always put extra personal touches. In contrary to all, I hope that once the new phase of airport development is completed. Private companies would have space to operate private FBO’s to cater the elite market . I believe this would be a game changer for the Tourism Industry as countries which serve Tourism like the way Maldives does, have their private FBO’s.
Throughout the years, Avia Maldives have been handling the same repeaters for a long time. we know their likes and dislikes. Clients do not have to tell us what they need when they arrive. For a private company like us, we take up the role and give clients the personalized service. I believes Avia Maldives will be strong throughout the pandemic and come out as on the leading companies in the industry.