The Maldives government has hired foreign advisers to conduct an aviation policy study for the archipelago to determine whether the country will retain its current liberal air services regime or even take it a step further.
UK law firm Beaumont & Sons was awarded the contract early in October and the study should take about six months, says Ibrahim Saleem, managing director of state-owned domestic carrier Island Aviation Services.
Saleem sits on the government group co-ordinating the study that will determine the nation's aviation policies for years to come. He says it will be "a medium-term air transport policy" for the Maldives, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka.
The country relies on international tourists for much of its foreign earnings. "This is a stock-taking consultation," says Saleem. "It is most prudent that we keep a focus on the future."
The Maldives already has a liberal air services regime that allows foreign carriers to operate to and through the capital Male. SriLankan Airlines, for example, operates services from Male to long-haul destinations in Europe and to Tokyo, Japan.
The liberal policy is needed because the Maldives has not had a locally based international airline since Air Maldives ceased operating more than two years ago. The carrier suspended international operations in February 2000 after a failed expansion that was to have included the launch of several long-haul routes alongside the addition of three more leased Airbus A310s.
Island Aviation Services was established as a domestic operator after the collapse of Air Maldives. It currently operates a 19-seat Dornier 228 and a 30-seat Bombardier Dash 8 turboprop to four destinations within the nation.
The Maldives government has long said it hopes to have another locally based international carrier at some point, although Saleem says there are no immediate plans for one, partly because the government remains in dispute with its former partner, Naluri, over Air Maldives' shutdown. Air Maldives Ltd still has yet to be wound up.
"The government already has an open-skies policy," says Saleem. "The question is, do we need to put our resources into this area and launch a new international carrier?" However, this carrier will not be launched by expanding Island Aviation Services, he notes.
Saleem also says that after the experience with Naluri - the former main shareholder of troubled Malaysia Airlines, which was renationalised last year - the Maldives government will be "very cautious" about future ventures.
The Maldives is still seeking money from Naluri for alleged breaches of their shareholding agreement for Air Maldives that was drawn up in October 1994. Naluri says the Maldives is seeking payment of $69.2 million to settle the failed carrier's liabilities.
NICHOLAS IONIDES COLOMBO
Source: Airline Business