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How Benjamin Solis’ restlessness led him to helm SEAIR

This captain amassed a treasure trove of adventure and experience. Now he’s on to a new challenge as South East Asian Airlines’ CEO.
By Elyssa Christine Lopez |

 

RESTLESS. Captain Benjamin Solis only applied for a scholarship offer from Philippine Airlines back in the 70s. Now, he is at the helm of SEAIR. Photo from Solis' Facebook account

 

 

 

Applying for a scholarship in an aviation school seemed the natural thing to do for the restless Captain Benjamin Solis, now at the helm of South East Asian Airlines International Inc. (SEAIR).

 

Solis, who only saw an ad on the newspaper, always yearned for adventure that even when he never planned to be a pilot, he signed up for the program. Decades later, he has become an established pilot in the aviation industry with a company to lead.

 


Expanding horizons

Hailing from Zamboanga City, Solis had always been on his feet even when as a child. He shared in the May issue of Forbes Philippines how his father whips him when he suddenly disappears as he wanders the forests and beaches of the province.

 

Once he turned nine, he asked if he could move to Manila instead, as he felt limited with the smallness of the town. By the time he was in the fifth grade, he was attending school at the Ateneo de Manila University.

 

His brazen ways continue to bring him in uncharted territories. In his past time, he goes far and beyond oceans in search of the biggest catch. He has sailed from the dangerous waters of West Philippine Sea to the far flung Babuyan Channel.

 

This lifestyle has molded him to be at ease on air even in times of trouble.

 

On his first passenger flight, Solis was met with a technical difficulty as the plane he was piloting had a hydraulic leak. He has done everything from pouring the fluid to emptying the fuel tank. By the time they landed, only one wheel came down.

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Thankfully, they landed safely without any injuries.

 

“I think that’s why we were trained that way, to have stability under pressure,” Solis told Forbes Philippines.


 

Toward excellence

During his time as a pilot, Solis recalled how driving planes also meant exhausting the pilot’s physicality with everything ran by cables and pulleys. Pilots also had their own rite of passage, sometimes at point of torture.

 

Still, he managed to graduate and had a decade of experience with Philippine Airlines (PAL), serving as a union officer and vice president of the Airline Pilots Association of the Philippines.

 

After Martial Law, he joined Canadian airline Pacific Western where he found himself as its Vice President, seven months into the job.

 

But a trip to Manila forced him to leave his position as two colonels visited him with a job offer: to be the general manager of Philippine Aero Transport Inc. (PATI).

 

Hesitant at first, he felt cornered. “Everyone was either a general, colonel or a major. They called me ‘Sir,’” Solis quipped.

 

During his tenure with PATI, he pioneered the “hub and spoke” system for the rural air service with one Islander aircraft in every airport. The planes were all locally assembled, with an arrangement with British manufacturer, Britten-Norman.

 

“At the time, it was still quite dangerous because the Muslims were fighting the government. I was teaching pilots to come in very, very high and dive toward the airstrip,” Solis said.

 

The system serviced those from the rural areas, even some who has not seen a plane in their lives.

 

 

Trail blazing

In 1980, after PAL was acquired by the Marcos government, he set up his own small taxi operation instead which functioned like a charter service but on schedule. It gave birth to Aerolift.

 

One of the first flights he had was to Boracay with Caticlan as his airport.

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“I’m a traveler. I’ve been to Bora Bora, the Canary Islands. They will be nothing compared to Boracay if we develop it,” Solis said as he pitched his idea to the Department of Tourism and to select foreign investors.

 

By December of the same year, there were 30 rooms in the island. Solis said it was a hit.

 

After 15 years, Aerolift was sold and became Asian Spirit. Today, Solis serves as an adviser for the United States Agency for International Development and heading SEAIR to new destinations.

 

 

*****

Elyssa Christine Lopez is entrepreneur.com.ph's editorial assistant/staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @elyssalopz. 

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