During the Pandemic, protecting the health of critical staff such as airline ground teams or pilots and cabin attendants has been a top priority for decision makers. The real solution is following strict protocols designed to maximize health and safety. Many innovative companies are working hard to eliminate the invisible enemy, and to help protect our real heroes from the virus. In this exclusive interview, we talk with Abdulla Nashid, Managing Director of Flyme, operated by Villa Air, a subsidiary company of Villa Group. Nashid joined Villa Air as a Director of Technical Services, after leaving Ryanair in 2010 and assumed the position of MD at Flyme in April 2017. He has built and led teams focused on incident management, operations, mobility, compliance, policy, and business continuity in innovative and highly regulated environments across the Maldives aviation industry.
1. How did you get inspired to join the Aviation and Hospitality industry?
Before I start, let me thank The islandchief for the wonderful contribution to the travel and tourism industry in Maldives.
Coming from an aeronautical engineering background, I would have to say that my inspiration to join the aviation industry is my passion for the science of flight. As an eager young student, my physics teacher Dr. Hassan Hameed played a vital role in getting me engaged in the fascinating theories of flight. This inspired me to pursue a scholarship through the Commonwealth scholarship scheme (British Council) which allowed me to complete my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Aeronautical Engineering in City University, London. After this I came back to the Maldives and served at the Civil Aviation Department of Maldives for nearly five years. Since I wanted to experience the marvels of aviation firsthand, I went back to the United Kingdom to complete my Aircraft Maintenance Engineering modules and started working at various MROs in the United Kingdom before joining Villa Air.
2. Tell us your thoughts on how we could build a better aviation industry after COVID-19. How would you describe the current state of the aviation sector and what changes are you anticipating for the future?
Aviation has transformed ever since the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic began. Right now, we see tourist source markets picking up one month and going for a complete shut-down the next, even with the stringent measures and restrictions in place. It is critical for airlines to be flexible and quick to adapt to these unavoidable realities.
I believe the future of air travel will be very focused on health and hygiene measures for the foreseeable future. Innovations such as the IATA Travel Pass will help airlines coordinate our efforts to revive the global aviation industry. Something like this will in turn be adopted down the line by all domestic carriers.
It will be interesting to observe how the traditional big hub airport concept comes back to its pre-pandemic levels. I would imagine the best way possible for Maldives would be to make the atolls more accessible to direct international traffic and open these airports spreading out flights throughout the 24 hours in a day, rather than funneling everything through one congested airport where arrivals are mostly congested to daytime flights.
3. Considering the key challenges faced during these uncertain times, how do you plan to spin the wheel and expand operations with new aircrafts and routes in the domestic and international market?
Very carefully! I strongly believe that making the atolls in Maldives more accessible to direct international traffic is key to the immediate and long-term success of tourism expansion in Maldives. This will help us arrange the air travel portion of holiday makers coming to Maldives in a more conducive manner to the new normal. This would be the basis for any expansion that we will be undertaking in the near future.
4. Based on data available to you, what’s is your projection in terms of load factor for the next 12 months?
It will most likely mirror the patterns we saw throughout the past 12 months but with some growth as more countries open up after vaccination.
5. You were compelled to make some difficult decisions a year ago – such as lay off over 200 of your employees in order to cut costs amid the financial regressions as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Maldives. How does the economic picture look like for employees? What are some of the biggest obstacles in terms of bringing back jobs and then also just being able to find enough people to fill the jobs that are necessary for smooth travel?
The biggest challenge for an operator such as Villa Air is sustaining a good number of flights with a volume that makes these flights feasible. Therefore, the target is very clear. We need to attract more tourist to take our ATR aircraft option. The biggest obstacle to this is the COVID-19 related issues which we can do very little about. However, equally important and something very fixable is the experience tourists get when taking an ATR domestic flight after they arrive to the Maldives on a long international flight. If this experience can be improved, I am confident that more passenger volume can be generated on ATR flights, enabling us to create more jobs.
6. You made news headlines earlier this year with the announcement of starting a Villa Air flying school, could you tell us more about the progress of this passionate project?
Development of Human Resource capabilities among Maldivians have always been a mission of our Chairman Hon. Qasim Ibrahim and Villa Group of Companies. We can see the evidence of this mission when we look at the work done by Villa Foundation and the staff working from the highest levels to the most junior staff at Villa Air. Villa Foundation has help create numerous Maldivian pilots and aircraft engineers. It has always been a vision of Hon. Qasim Ibrahim to start a flying school that will help further development of capabilities of young Maldivians and through them, the aviation industry as a whole. To achieve this, Villa College in partnership with Villa Air have continued to work on this project throughout this duration. Villa Airport Maamigili is being prepared as a base for the practical portion of the flying school. We have studied the flying school project and identified areas that we need to focus to create a good product for the students that will be using our flying school services.
7. With your expertise knowledge in the international market, what are the future strategic plans for Villa Air?
Our strategic plan is to help Maldives tourism industry grow by contributing through our expansion into international routes. We intend to unlock and generate new inbound tourist traffic that will help the nation and help Villa Air grow at the same time to become synonymous with the Maldives tourism brand at a global level. This approach will help us strengthen the aviation industry in Maldives by providing additional opportunities for Villa Air and other Maldivian carriers operating domestically, opening more opportunities for all of us to expand our domestic operations within the Maldives. As the saying goes “success breeds success”.
8. Villa International Airport Maamigili has been a testament of excellence for Villa Group’s Chairman, Hon. Qasim Ibrahim. Today, we see a number of private jets taking advantage of parking at Maamigili Airport as an alternative for parking with congestions at Velana International Airport, Male’. How do you see the future of Maamigili Airport? Please tell us more about the strengths and capabilities.
Villa Airport Maamigili has been a pioneer project that I like to believe had inspired the course of aviation policy and development in Maldives for the past nine plus years. We now see private companies actively developing airports to serve tourism establishments nearby. These nine plus years have helped the region build expertise and a local talent pool of young Maldivians eager to take this project to the next phase of its evolution. The airport now has the potential to make the leap into the international stage and start regular scheduled international operations, directly linking Ari Atoll to the rest of the world. I see the airport becoming a center for tourism related air travel, flying school and other industries forming around this ambitious project.
9. What precautionary measures have been implemented by Flyme for safe travel?
Our goal is to keep the momentum going for the Maldives as the leading tourism brand in the world after the boarders opened on July 2020. The ATR aircraft that we operate are optimized for maximum air circulation and with the biggest interior among the domestic aircraft being operated in Maldives, it is the best fit for health-conscious travelers in the new normal. We ensure that all our customer touchpoints are in compliance with the best practices and often take time to review these measures to try and improve upon them. Furthermore, our air crew and maintenance staff follow strict protocols designed to maximize health and safety.
10. During a time of a crisis for humanity and our industry, what is the business case of accelerating focus on an airline’s sustainability strategy? Is COVID an opportunity to rethink, pivot and reinvent?
I cannot agree more that the COVID pandemic gave the whole of humanity many reasons to pause, rethink and reinvent. We see evidence of this all around in our day to day lives. The airline industry is no different. In fact, the aviation industry is the industry that had been hit the hardest due to the pandemic.
The new normal calls for flexibility and ingenuity to persevere. Creating a business environment within Maldives that is fair and equally laid out for all airlines will encourage these traits of flexibility and ingenuity to come to the surface and create models that foster sustainability in the airline industry in Maldives. This will help the Maldivian economy recover and grow even faster than expected.
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