Seaplane services in India take flight; routes hold the key to success, say experts
Industry experts said they hoped the UDAN scheme would boost seaplane activity, but routes should be chosen keeping in mind both tourism and business trafficUpdated: Nov 23, 2020, 16:17 IST
After Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi inaugurated a seaplane service between Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad and Kevadia on October 31, for those who want to visit the Statue of Unity, seaplane services are back in the spotlight. This route is the first seaplane to operate under the government’s Udey Desh ka Aam Naagarik (UDAN) project. Industry experts have raised concerns regarding recently-launched seaplane routes, flagging how previous seaplane services were forced to shut down due to poor response.
The new seaplane service in Gujarat comes almost three years after PM Modi travelled by seaplane from Sabarmati riverfront to Dharoj Dam in 2017, and announced his government’s intention to harness waterways. In addition to the newly-operational Ahmedabad-Kevadia stretch, 16 seaplane routes were recently announced as part of UDAN. These routes include Port Blair to Havelock, Delhi to Haridwar and Delhi to Rishikesh. Seaplane services will also cater to Udaipur, the backwaters of Kerala, Leh and Dal Lake.
Previously, between 2011 and 2017, Pawan Hans Helicopters Limited (PHHL) and Mumbai-based Maritime Energy Heli Air Service Pvt Ltd (Mehair) had operated seaplane services in Andaman and Nicobar islands. Mehair had also operated seaplanes between from Mumbai to Pawna dam (Lonavla) and Mumbai to Aamby Valley. These operations closed down owing to poor response and high ticket prices.
Siddharth Verma, co-founder of Mehair said, “It’s good to see seaplane operations resuming and the government’s contribution to it in the form of UDAN is a big support to the operators. It is a much-needed push to establish seaplane services in the country. ” Verma said Mehair plans to relaunch seaplane services in the second quarter of 2021. “We have firm plans to relaunch with a Cessna 208A from Mumbai and another Cessna 208A from Goa,” he said.
Industry experts said they hoped the UDAN scheme would boost seaplane activity, but routes should be chosen keeping in mind both tourism and business traffic to prevent another set of failures.
“During Covid times, there has been no international tourism at all. All flights operated under the government’s efforts are seeing passengers travelling for emergency purposes. Domestically too, India will barely see tourism traffic increasing until the vaccine is available,” said aviation expert, Captain Mohan Ranganathan.
Another industry expert, requesting anonymity, questioned the government’s decision to choose Kevadia as a destination. “Kevadia is not even a township and reportedly lacks developed accommodation facilities. It seems that there are preferences for some routes over those which can bring success to seaplane operations. I do not see the newly-commenced route to be a good idea to commence seaplane operations,” said the expert. Kevadia is 3.5 kilometres from the location of the colossal statue of Sardar Patel that is known as the Statue of Unity and is the world’s tallest statue.
A former Airports Authority of India (AAI) official said, “Seaplane services were a hit with tourists in Andaman and Nicobar islands and were high in demand until the contract expired. However, these services didn’t see passenger load when they were extended to other parts of the country, like Maharashtra and Kerala.” The official attributed the limited popularity of seaplane services to affordability. “Today a tourist can use the service by paying around Rs 2,000, for which he had to earlier pay around Rs 4,200 (for a 30-minute ride). The tax regime was different. Value-added tax (VAT) was higher and infrastructure like seaplane corridors and water drones were not in place.”
In terms of operational ease, a former Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) official said seaplane operators under UDAN could obtain assured slots from airports. Requesting anonymity, the official said, “They [the slots] may not be the most desirable ones, but at least getting slots and parking bays in major busy airports like Delhi and Mumbai doesn’t become a problem. The biggest step this time is policy change. The government has introduced stringent water drone requirements. UDAN has undoubtedly reduced hurdles. The rest of it depends on how the operator markets and ensures the sustainability of their business.”
The official agreed with industry experts who said that routes with more than one type of passenger traffic were essential to make seaplanes a successful business model and a sustainable mode of transport in India.