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Modi govt plans over 100 routes for seaplane services: A look at its history & market in India

Civil aviation and waterways ministries have signed MoU to develop seaplane services. At least 28 routes awarded so far under UDAN scheme & bids are under evaluation for 78 more.

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New Delhi: The Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) Tuesday for the development of seaplane services, calling it a “game-changer”. The move aims to enhance seamless connectivity and give a boost to the tourism sector.

“Signing of this MoU is a major milestone for making seaplanes projects a reality very soon. This MoU envisages development of Non Scheduled/Scheduled operation of seaplane services within territorial jurisdiction of India under RCS-UDAN scheme of government of India,” the ministry said in an official statement.

At least 28 seaplane routes have been awarded so far under the Regional Connectivity Scheme-UDAN, and 14 water aerodromes based in Gujarat, Assam, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep are at various stages of development, at a cost of Rs 450 crore, according to the government.

Meanwhile, bids are under evaluation for 78 more seaplane routes.

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri called the latest move a “big fillip to the provision of a new kind of tourism service in India”.

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The three-way play

Underlining the three components at play — land, water and connectivity — Usha Padhee, Joint Secretary in the aviation ministry, told ThePrint: “The water expertise is available with the shipping ministry, while the land side issues of terminal building, fire tender provisions and security, is under the civil aviation ministry. To improve connectivity, routes are being awarded under the regional connectivity scheme.”

She added: “We institutionalised the different roles, so that these things can move fast and coordination can be better.”

Seaplane operations need a unique business model, which wasn’t available in India so far, said Padhee.

“If we have such an MoU and are able to develop more water aerodromes, more places will be available, and connectivity will increase. This will bring in some perspective for investors and airline operators to attract them to this niche area,” she said.

The immediate target is to build 14 water aerodromes by the end of this financial year. “By 2024, we want to develop the water aerodromes under UDAN 4.1 scheme,” Padhee added.

The existing route

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched a seaplane service in October last year between the Sabarmati Riverfront and the Statue of Unity in Gujarat, looking to bolster the state’s tourism and the UDAN scheme.

SpiceShuttle, a subsidiary of aviation player SpiceJet, operated the route using a Twin Otter 300 seaplane, which can accommodate up to 19 people including the crew.

Four flights between the two destinations were being operated daily — with each ticket costing Rs 4,800 — till April this year, when the second wave forced parts of the country into lockdown. The operations are yet to restart.

Also read: Govt considering to allow domestic air travel without negative Covid report if fully vaccinated

Seaplane history in India

A seaplane offers the speed of an aircraft with the utility of a boat. It is essentially a fixed-winged aeroplane designed for taking off and landing on water. It has two main types — a hull seaplane or a flying boat that relies on its fuselage for buoyancy, and a floating plane that uses slender gloats attached to its fuselage to remain afloat.

It acts as a conduit in places where airports can’t be developed or where land masses are extremely sparse.

In British India, several lakes were used as landing bases for seaplanes. One of them was the Rajsamand lake, 66 km north of Udaipur, which was the seaplane base of the Imperial Airways during World War II and had been a marine dome for over six years. This was discovered in 2003 when the lake went dry, revealing an iron chain anchor.

“Seaplanes and sea ports thrived in India as early as the 1930s. Erstwhile maharajas in India also did operate their own seaplanes from several lakes from the 1930s right up to the 1970s, so the concept isn’t new and the DGCA in India has regulations that allow for such type of operation,” Mark Martin, founder and CEO, Martin Consulting, an aviation compliance and safety firm, told ThePrint.

During the UPA government, then aviation minister Praful Patel had launched Jal Hans, a six-month pilot project on 30 December 2010, under its parent company Pawan Hans. It was based in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and used one six-year-old Cessna 208 A that could accommodate 10 passengers.

Patel had then said, “If we wish to see India connected, seaplane and helicopter operations play a very vital and important role. India has a 7,400-km coastline. This can be implemented in so many other places.”

Market non-existent

India’s seaplane market, however, continues to remain non-existent despite a huge potential given its long coastline.

Seaplanes require an ecosystem to function, where facilities, specialised airplanes and other considerations play an important role.

“What makes this complicated is that aviation is a central subject, but infrastructure has to be built by states. Even in Gujarat, where there is tourism demand and the BJP is in power, it could not be sustained,” said Satyendra Pandey, managing director, AT-TV, an aviation finance firm.

Underlining the ecological challenges, Pandey said the industry will need displacement of fishing communities and a requirement to clear some area of the water.

“The potential is there for sure, but it requires political will and for private capital to come in. You must be able to see the profitability,” he said.

“The MoU is a step in the right direction. But the demand has collapsed and indicators aren’t trending in the right direction. From a policy angle, a lot of ends remain to be tied,” he added.

Martin agreed, arguing that while this step is correct in principle, tagging the shipping ministry to build seaports makes no “practical working sense”.

“Seaplane services and seaports is the easiest transport infrastructure to do, all you need is the aircraft configured in a floatplane variant and the training to be done accordingly. The flying is mostly below 3000 ft. So seldom do aircraft meander into high levels/altitude flying where you need to deal with air traffic control spacing and congestion,” he underlined.

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