A dispute has erupted off the coast of Sihanoukville. On one side is the country’s aviation authority, backed by the local airport. On the other side are a couple of guys and a few flying boats.
The State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) said yesterday that it would turn to local law enforcement to suspend the operations of an unlicenced microlight aircraft operator after three cease and desist letters reportedly went unanswered.
The company, aptly named Flying Boat Cambodia, operates a small fleet of fixed-wing vessels, and for $50 a pop a trained employee will pilot tourists up and around the coast, taking off and landing in local waters.
Concerned about safety and protecting what it called restricted air space, the SSCA initially issued the company with the order on December 12 last year, more than seven months after it had received initial approval from the provincial government for its scenic tour service.
After getting no response and learning of ongoing flights, the SSCA issued a second order on January 3 and a final letter on January 23.
“Again, this letter is to alert the SSCA that the company (Flying Boat Cambodia) is continuing operations without SSCA regulation approval,” the letter dated January 3 states, referring to microlight aircraft regulations which were installed in late 2013.
There is currently just one microlight aircraft licence holder in Cambodia.
Chhun Sivorn, deputy director of flight operations and air safety at the SSCA, confirmed the regulator’s failed efforts to ground Flying Boat Cambodia’s operations, amid fears its sightseeing flights are interfering with Sihanoukville International Airport’s restricted airspace.
“They need to fly with permission from the SSCA and the Sihanoukville airport, where there are many commercial flights. They are in the flight path,” Sivorn said, without citing any accidents or close calls.
Sample video of the flights provided to the Post showed the vessels flying not far from the beach, with no commercial airliners in sight.
“The next step would be to involve local authorities, unfortunately,” he said.
Hun Chhoeun, director of the Sihanoukville International Airport, said the company has been freely flying its boats through restricted airspace, and urged the regulator to shut the business down immediately.
“It is a risk to the commercial airlines. While no one has been injured, there is a real risk that if they do not follow permissions of the airport and SSCA something could happen,” he said.
All of this is a big headache for the owner of Flying Boat Cambodia, Lim Vannadeth, who yesterday rejected claims his pilots had entered restricted airspace, and said he had attempted numerous times to contact the SSCA by phone but was unable to get any assistance.
“I sent the documents for our official microlight machine licence more than a month ago,” he said.
Vannadeth admitted that he did not immediately cease flying operations upon receiving the SSCA order, since his company was conducting pilot training, “and the tourist season is very short – just two or three months”.
He urged the SSCA to be flexible with small business operators in regards to microlight licensing laws. His four aircraft, which cost about $30,000 each and operate in a similar fashion as a paraglider with a motorised propeller, have been popular with tourists since first taking to the skies in May last year.
Vannadeth said there have been no accidents.
“The aviation authority in other countries does not need to provide approval for these kinds of machines. That is why, after receiving approval from the governor of Sihanoukville, we commenced our business.
“This is an opportunity to increase tourism in Cambodia.”