Maldivian Air Taxi’s Twin Otters work hard in a challenging salt-water environment. (Photo: Neelam Mathews)
October 2, 2012, 3:45 AM
Arguably nowhere on earth is the business case for seaplanes more compelling than in the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives with its 1,190 islands (200 of them inhabited). The scattered nation, situated 250 miles southwest of India, has the world’s largest fleet of de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters, offering high-end tourists a time-saving alternative to the boat connections between its low-lying islands spread over 35,000 square miles.
Maldivian Air Taxi operates 20 Twin Otters, flying approximately 2,500 hours each month and making between 150 and 200 flights each day (with sectors ranging from 30 nm to 110 nm). The airline carries approximately 400,000 passengers a year. At more than $130 for a 30-minute ride (one way) and with three-year exclusive contracts with some 45 resorts, the private operator’s revenues are healthy, although it does face competition from a second Twin Otter operator in the shape of Trans Maldivian Airways, which has the same number of the type in its fleet.
While the start of this year brought in a change in government and some degree of political instability for the Maldives, last year was the airline’s best yet for revenues. “We expect business to be good this year but not as great as we had projected,” said CEO Fredrik Groth, CEO.
Customer demographics are changing: Europeans, who stayed for two weeks on average, are being replaced by Asians, who typically stay for shorter periods of about four to five days, resulting in a quicker turnover for seaplane operators. The Maldives government plans to double current hotel capacity with 10,000 more rooms will also stimulate business, Groth told AIN.
Recently, the company upgraded avionics and installed Tcas on all its seaplanes in recognition of the fact that Maldivian airspace is getting busier. “Now we are rewiring the airplanes to avoid electrical problems and reduce maintenance problems,” Groth said. One third of the Twin Otter fleet has been modernized.
The business is not without its share of trials. Pilots need to be alert for high waves and keep track of tides and currents that are obvious only once the airplane lands. “The challenge is not in the air but on water,” said Groth. Changes in tides and swell can strand the seaplanes at resorts, and they aren’t approved to fly at night.
With no brakes on the Twin Otters, taxiing is not the simple maneuver it is on land. All training is done in the airplanes, which is costly and time consuming.
In addition, planned resort growth creates a double-edged sword: while it spells new business for Maldivian Air Taxi, it also increases the operational workload. Lacking published runway and approach documents, the airline has work to do when a new resort opens; it has to study the satellite imagery to determine the geometry of the approach, Groth explained.
On a peak traffic day a Maldivian Air Taxi seaplane takes off every four minutes. “The average captain has flown more than 5,000 hours on the Twin Otter [and has] thorough knowledge of each landing site in the Maldives,” said Groth. The company has also constructed platforms for landing near resorts and provides training and support to resort staff.
In 17 years of operations, Maldivian Air Taxi has not had a single fatality. “This is all we do. Seaplane operations are very specific and resorts have their own requirements,” said Groth. Now, the company is being approached by operators from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore for technical consultancy.
Maintenance in Harsh Conditions
The Twin Otter workhorses seem to live up to their reputation for being robust. Groth says there are no plans to replace them with the new Viking Twin Otter Series 400, nor the single-engine Caravan. “We are looking at more used airplanes because the salt water plays havoc on the machines,” he explained. The company overhauls three airplanes a year during the off-peak season.
The biggest challenge for the company lies in technical support for its aircraft. Among the essentials for maintenance, repair and overhaul are a constant supply of electrical power and fresh water, facilities for storing and dispensing jet fuel, and the need for a maintenance hangar and dedicated dock for engine run-ups.
Maintenance of the seaplanes in a salt-water environment poses further challenges, and the frequency of takeoffs and landings is hard on the floats. Operators have had to adapt procedures for maintenance. “Line maintenance is performed on floating aircraft, and to check oil levels when the plane is moving is a bit of a chore,” said Groth.
The seaplane also has to be washed everyday with fresh water as engines corrode quickly with exposure to salt water. “Fifty percent of the time, we don’t overhaul our engines and just take new ones,” he added.
As its seaplane fleet gets older, Maldivian is finding it increasingly difficult to find used replacements, with few airplanes having been built over the last 20 years, explained Groth. For now the operator rebuilds its fleet every five years with new wiring and avionics and replaces airframe structure as necessary. After logging 10,000 hours, each aircraft is torn down and stripped to bare metal for a repaint.