Seaplane-resort cooperation perfects art of arrival in the Maldives

Six hundred dollars per person. It’s the average cost of round-trip seaplane transfers between the main airport of the Maldives–Malé’s Velana International and any of more than 100 luxury resorts amongst the Maldives’ 1,100 sand islands dribbled over 510 miles in the Indian Ocean from the southwest tip of India down to the Equator. It’s also an amount that gives pause to travelers considering the destination for vacation; why pay what easily equals another night’s cost at a five-star resort for just the 30- or 40-minute flight transfer?

The value, much like the natural beauty of the Maldives, reveals itself to those who endure the nearly 24 hours of travel to reach Malé and commit to continuing on by seaplane. It’s learning by doing. Once a passenger steps off an inbound international flight to the Maldives and collects baggage, the airline is essentially done with them until it comes time to check-in for the return. Stepping in to wrangle the logistics of that in-between time is the passenger’s resort of choice, whose representatives and contracted handling companies have perfected the transition from immigration to relaxation.

The value is a fully orchestrated experience that transitions guests from exhausted airline passengers to engaged and enthusiastic participants in a journey from international arrivals to seaplane lounge, from seaplane lounge to seaplane, and finally from seaplane to the island bungalow or overwater villa which seemed so interminably distant only a day ago.

A view of seaplane operations gets guests excited to fly. Image: Cynthia Dresher

The first hint at the unique nature of the Maldives seaplane transfer comes even before a traveler packs their bags. Flights are made by pre-arrangement with the resorts, via email or phone in conjunction with a resort booking weeks before, and not by individual ticket purchase. The two seaplane companies – Maldivian and Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) – maintain contracts with the various resort islands and need to know passenger loads and travel plans in advance for flight planning and coordination with resort staff also looking for seats out to the islands from the capital. TMA actually holds the distinction of being the world’s largest seaplane operator, with 48 aircraft and the happy slogan of “Sun, Sand, Sea, and Seaplane.”

Seaplane pilots operating the first flight from island resorts get to stay overnight and enjoy paradise. Image: Cynthia Drescher

Done correctly, a resort guest will be guided through arrivals, driven to the seaplane terminal, set up in the resort’s dedicated seaplane lounge, offered refreshments and entertainment, and transitioned to vacation mode all without having to worry about departure times, luggage logistics, and ticket numbers.

A perfect example of thoughtful and re-energizing guest service is at the Kihavah Niyama lounge at the Maldivian seaplane terminal, where the furnishings reflect resort style and guests are welcomed with complimentary beverages, snacks, and deliciously speedy WiFi.

Resort-style seating in the Kihavah Niyama seaplane lounge. Image: Cynthia Drescher

The lounge also includes private shower suites, a dream feature for those who look forward to literally stripping off the last 24 hours of travel. A selection of menus for the dining venues available at the island resorts, in this case the Anantara Kihavah Villas or PER AQUUM Niyama, begins to build excitement and, by the time the pilot, in shorts and flip-flop sandals, arrives to usher passengers down to their waiting seaplane, the mood has drastically changed to embrace a renewed desire to fly on. Constant coordination between seaplane and resort also finishes the flight experience with a surprise welcome by a coterie of staff, impressive in their white linen uniforms lined up on the resort pier, who receive arriving guests and fast-track registration to make going from plane to pool entirely possible in under 10 minutes.

Eventually vacation comes to an end, but the stress of re-entering the melee at the airport is delayed and eased again by seaplane-resort coordination. Seaplanes in the Maldives only operate during daylight, and most travelers arrive back to Malé International Airport from resort islands via seaplanes before 17:00. With nearly half of MLE’s international outbound flights scheduled for take-off after 20:00, there’s the problem of a few buffer hours between seaplane arrival to MLE and check-in time for that final flight out. It’s a problem the resorts have embraced as yet another opportunity to wow, welcoming guests back into the hospitality lounges for complimentary evening meals, WiFi, and access to playrooms for children.

Arriving to PER AQUUM Niyama by Maldivian seaplane. Image: Cynthia Drescher

Pei Ketron, a San Francisco-based photographer and educator, recently traveled to the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island and shared her seaplane experience with Runway Girl Network, detailing how the service stretched even after check-out:

“[The seaplane flights] were arranged via emails with the Conrad staff a few weeks before our trip. Cost was $560 round trip per person (pretty pricey!) Everything was smooth. Our Cathay Pacific flight was around 11pm and our seaplane [returned at] 5pm. We had about 5 hours in the lounge, which included dinner. It was much nicer than waiting in the general airport area. At the end of the lounge time, they transported us to the main terminal and made sure we got through security before leaving us.”

Flying to the Maldives and indulging in the Instagram-ideal vacation is a pricey proposition, but thanks to the orchestrated cooperation of the seaplane airlines and the luxury resorts, it doesn’t have to be a frustrating one. Service design is at its peak in the Maldives, where the island experience begins at baggage claim and even general managers wave welcome to every guest. It’s a “you get what you pay for” situation, said with a smile, as premium prices here actually yield a premium experience that treats transfer transportation as an integral piece of the hospitality puzzle.