With approximately 4 lakh ponds, plenty of dams, 2,000 river ports, 200 small ports and 12 major ports there is significant potential for seaplane operations in India. Add to that several islands, resorts and backwater destinations. A growing population base coupled with rising income levels and the propensity to travel theoretically is set to fuel demand. Based on these considerations, there is a recent push by the government towards seaplane operations. It remains to be seen which entrepreneur is first to the market.
Considerations for operators before commencing seaplane operations
Seaplane operations are unique and require a mini-ecosystem of their own. On the infrastructure side there is a critical requirement for sustainable water aerodromes. The aerodromes have to be easily accessible and charges must commensurate with the scale of operations. Failing that the viability of the operations comes into question.
Other variables include recruitment of staff and pilots, managing costs of hangar, rentals for the operating space. In the Indian context, all of these are ‘greenfield setups’. That is, they have to be developed from scratch as opposed to expanding existing infrastructure. That poses unique challenges of its own including the will and skill for such an undertaking.
And finally the most critical decisions for seaplane operations: The choice of aircraft.
Aircraft choice involves balancing several variables
China has a domestically developed AG600, a massive four-engine amphibian plane that can carry 50 people. Russia has the Beriev Be-200, a twinjet amphibian that can be modified. But until now it has been mainly used for firefighting operations. And then there is the
Assessing aircraft for seaplane operations is fairly complex. It calls for a unique model and one cannot use regular aircraft assessment tools. This as various independent yet interdependent factors have to be taken into account depending on operating environment, commercial considerations and nature of floats/undercarriage. Popular choices include the de Havilland Canadas DHC-2 popular as the Beaver, the DHC-6 popular as the Twin Otter, the Cessna C-208 Caravan and Dornier Seastar CD-2. As of now, these represent the most extensively used seaplanes the world over. Globally, the seaplane fleet averages 15+ years with approximately 9-11 seats per aircraft and the most popular engine type being supplied by Pratt & Whitney Canada.
American-made Quest Kodiak aircraft which became popular when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a seaplane flight back in 2019.
It is likely that an Indian operator will attempt to launch seaplane operations using the DHC-6 or the Quest Kodiak aircraft within the next 18 months.
Infrastructure requirements for seaplane operations are unique
The infrastructure requirements for seaplanes are fascinating to say the least. Everything from the depth of the sea bed and the length of run required for takeoffs and landings have to be catered for. The current flow, water levels and wave heights have to be measured. Presence of animals such as crocodiles or species of fish has to be mitigated. Items such as water debris also have to be accounted for. The approach to landing sites has unobstructed and come under navigable airspace…
On the handling side, there is the regular passenger handling and limited cargo handling often impacted by payload limitations. Additional provisions have to be made for docking and securing aircraft. Getting fuel to a water-aerodrome is a challenge of its own. Finally, water based operations require intensive maintenance for the fleet and this has to be provisioned and planned for.
Emergency services include firefighting and rescue. One immediately thinks of trucks and ambulances for these services, but in the case of seaplanes in many cases the aircraft has to be accessed via boats. Thus boats have to be retrofitted as fire-boats and ambulances.
The unique requirements translate into risk which translates to higher financing costs. The ability to recover the costs exists but requires a broader scope than only seaplanes. Mainly because of the nascent nature of the market, the lower spending levels and a business model that requires charters as opposed to scheduled operations.
Ecological challenges abound
As seaplane operations are integrated with existing natural water bodies, ecological challenges come to the forefront. In the past there have been concerns on fishing communities that can be impacted. There is also the challenge of biodiversity. The Kerala government has already faced challenges on this front and initially set up and then dismantled aerodromes at Punnamada, Kumarakom, Ashtamudi and Bakel. The assets in these locations were redeployed for the promotion of adventure tourism.
Other limiting factors include the ability to only operate from sunrise to sunset. This is not unique to India. While there are a few facilities in the world that do accommodate night seaplane landings such as the landing lane on Lake Hood in Anchorage, Alaska, that is the exception, not the norm.
For the foreseeable future as sustainability and green equity become critical factors in aviation, managing stakeholders including the perception, reality and mitigation of ecological challenges is critical for any operator wishing to enter. The recent protests in Mumbai with regards to the Aarey forest are evidence of the same.
Will seaplane operations take off?
For operators looking to enter this segment in India, assessment of profitability prospects remains challenging. Part of the reason is that there is extremely limited historical data to inform analyses. In looking to other countries, the evolution of Seaplane operations is very different. For instance, in Maldives, these are a primary source of transportation; in places like Alaska and Seattle they are a reliable source of commuting; and in cities in Australia and Canada the tourism product has been integrated with the seaplane ecosystem. Planners have to think about these aspects carefully.
On the financing side, the aircraft types are such that leasing is not a viable option. Tax issues abound and financing and insurance costs are high. And ecological concerns lend themselves to litigation and time spent in court. Other issues include the storage and maintenance of the assets, dealing with an evolving regulatory environment and the training and deployment of skilled personnel.
On the commercial side, there are yield considerations. And the cyclicality of demand. As a scheduled operation, Seaplanes simply do not make sense. As an on-demand charter operation the yield premiums have to be high enough to recover the costs. And while there are avenues to do that, it requires integration of several disparate elements.
For infrastructure, the Indian government has made a strong push towards inland waterways and towards the viability of seaplane operations. Policy initiatives included the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issuing licensing norms for setting up water aerodromes. This was followed by the Airports Authority of India assessing up to twenty sites last year and inclusion of seaplane operations in the regional connectivity scheme (UDAN) making these operations eligible for subsidised seats on each flight.
As tourism in India evolves and as travellers demand more diverse and experiential products, seaplane operations present a unique opportunity and the potential is large. One can only wait and watch to see which operator will take the plunge.
Satyendra Pandey has held a variety of assignments in aviation. He is the former head of strategy at a fast growing airline. Previously he was with the Centre for Aviation (CAPA) where he led the advisory and research teams. Satyendra has been involved in restructuring, scaling and turnarounds. Read his columns