India finally giving seaplanes their due, promises sea change in connectivity

Twenty-eight seaplane routes have been awarded under RCS-UDAN and 14 water aerodromes at a cost of Rs 450 crore are at various stages of development, Puri said

India finally giving seaplanes their due, promises sea change in connectivity
The Spice Shuttle seaplane operating between Statue of Unity and Sabarmati riverfront. Image courtesy: Youtube/Spice Shuttle

 The question of ease of transportation and access to the remotest corners through air services at an affordable price has been high on the agenda of the Indian government, and that involves the use of seaplanes so that even places that do not have runways or landing strips and where land masses are sparse do not stay out of the transportation ambit. 

Seaplanes are part of the government's Regional Connectivity Scheme-Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik (RCS-UDAN), under which the government and airport operators provide financial incentives to selected airlines for flying to hitherto unserved and underserved airports while keeping airfares within the reach of the general public. The RCS-UDAN has been one of the big success stories of Indian aviation. 

In continuation of this programme, the ministries of civil aviation and ports, shipping and waterways signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on June 15 to give a firm push to the development of seaplane services in the country. Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri announced that the government has planned over 100 seaplane routes and has also taken up the construction of water aerodromes in a big way.       

Puri said, "28 seaplane routes have been awarded under RCS-UDAN and 14 water aerodromes based in Gujarat, Assam, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep at a cost of Rs 450 crore are at various stages of development." He added that bids for 78 more seaplane routes are being evaluated. 

"This MoU will expedite the development of new water aerodromes and operationalisation of new seaplane routes in India and will give a big fillip to the provision of a new kind of tourism service in India," he noted. Puri's colleague in the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways (MoPSW) Mansukh Mandaviya reiterated that India is exploring "new horizons of connectivity and tourism through seaplanes". 

"Signing of this MoU is a major milestone for making seaplane projects a reality very soon. This MoU envisages development of non scheduled/scheduled operation of seaplane services within the territorial jurisdiction of India under RCS-UDAN scheme of government of India,” the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) said in an official statement.  

As part of the MoU, the MoPSW would identify and develop the waterfront infrastructure, including aerodromes and obtain statutory clearances and approvals in coordination with the MoCA, Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and Airports Authority of India (AAI) by defining the timelines for activities involved in the development of facilities for starting seaplane services. 

Also read: Karnataka man's big seaplane push to Atmanirbhar Bharat despite Covid hit

The MoCA, on the other hand, would be responsible for carrying out the bidding and selecting potential airline operators, incorporating the locations/routes as identified by the MoPSW and routes identified through the bidding process in the UDAN scheme document. The MoCA would also provide financial support to set up water aerodromes awarded under RCS-UDAN and coordinate with chief secretaries of states for seaplane operations.      

MoCA Joint Secretary Usha Padhee, who is also one of the forces behind the UDAN project, told The Print that the MoU gives a definite perspective to investors and airline operators to draw them into the niche area of seaplanes. She said that the unique business model needed for seaplane operations has been missing in the country, and added that with the institutionalisation of roles, progress is expected to be faster regarding the seaplane project. She informed that the immediate target was to build 14 water aerodromes by the end of this financial year and by 2024, develop the water aerodromes under the UDAN 4.1 scheme. 

Merits galore

The importance of seaplanes in significantly boosting connectivity, especially in a country like India, which has a long coastline and is dotted with water bodies, cannot be overemphasised. As has been often repeated, seaplanes offer the speed of an aeroplane with the utility of a boat. Seaplanes can land on and take off from water, and can thus reach the most inaccessible areas that are surrounded by water bodies and cannot be connected by road. Being much smaller than ordinary commercial aircraft, seaplanes can land on water bodies, gravel and grass, providing an excellent opportunity to bring far-flung areas into the mainstream aviation network.

Source: Twitter/@flyspicejet

Also significantly, operating seaplanes doesn't involve the high cost of building airports and runways. Moreover, since seaplanes fly at relatively low altitudes, it precludes the need for air traffic control spacing and congestion. Flying seaplanes, however, needs a completely different degree of expertise for pilots, as they have to take off from and land on fluid surfaces.  

Seaplanes can provide a huge leg-up for tourism, which is a major money-spinner for the Indian economy. So for instance, a seaplane ride from Delhi’s Yamuna riverfront to Ayodhya for a visit to the Ram temple may soon become a common practice, that too at a fraction of the time currently needed. A top religious and tourist destination like the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, which is located in the sea, off the coast of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, can be easily accessed through seaplanes from places as far-off as Tuticorin on the eastern coast and Thiruvananthapuram on the western coast. Dwarka, one of the Chardhams (four major Hindu pilgrimage sites), can be reached from Diu or Kandla without much hassle and in a quick time. 

Also read -- India's mega seaplane push: Now hardly any tourist spot too remote

Seaplanes would be a real boon for tourism in the Sundarbans, which boasts of one of the richest biodiversities in the world, but is marked by dense forests and highly inaccessible terrain and islands crisscrossed by creeks that often get inundated. A boat ride in Sundarbans is often a risky affair, given that the waters are infested with crocodiles and indeed swimming tigers. Seaplanes can solve the problem of accessibility and afford tourists spectacular and detailed aerial views that no boat can offer. In fact, SpiceJet Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) Ajay Singh had said in 2018 that his company was exploring the potential of making West Bengal a hub for seaplanes that could fly to Gangasagar, Sundarbans and other parts of the state, in an effort to boost tourism, according to a Live Mint report. 

Seaplanes have the potential to revolutionise transportation. Image courtesy: Unsplash

Then, in the world's largest riverine island Majuli (in Assam), which is also a bird watcher's paradise, and in the famous Kaziranga National Park, which is home to the one-horned rhinoceros, seaplane connectivity from Guwahati would be a shot in the arm for tourism. 

These are only a few examples. There are several other tourist attractions that could be connected by seaplanes. These aircraft have a lot of potential in the Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar islands, Northeast India, and a place like Uttarakhand, which is dotted by lakes. Not only tourism, but small seaplanes could also be invaluable for training, reconnaissance, surveillance, surveys and for plain transportation of passengers, in this regard, playing a role similar to drones. 

Seaplanes are environment-friendly too. The turbulence created in the water during the takeoff and landing of seaplanes is known to cause a heightened mixing of oxygen in the water. This would result in increasing the oxygen content and decreasing carbon content in the aquatic ecosystem.     

Big breakthrough

On October 31, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a seaplane service, connecting Kevadia, which houses the Statue of Unity -- the world's tallest statue -- and Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, not too far away from Mahatma Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram. The seaplane service between these two important tourist destinations was launched by SpiceJet under the banner of Spice Shuttle, and according to Gujarat Tourism, the five-hour journey time between these two points had been cut to only 45 minutes.

For this service, SpiceJet had wet-leased a 19-seater Twin Otter 300 seaplane manufactured by Canada's de Havilland from the national airline of Maldives -- Maldivian Aero. This meant that Maldivian Aero had provided SpiceJet with the entire service, maintenance, insurance, operations as well as crew in return for a fee. The aircraft flies on twin-turboprop Pratt and Whitney PT6A-27 engines, which are billed as extremely environment-friendly and reliable. SpiceJet said that the aircraft is one of the safest and most widely used in the Maldives and across the world. The seaplane being used by SpiceJet is nearly 50 years old.

The Statue of Unity-Sabarmati riverfront seaplane service got a rousing response, with SpiceJet getting around 3,000 booking requests in two days, Live Mint reported a couple of days after the service was launched. The popularity of the service led SpiceJet to consider opening a similar service between Surat and the Statue of Unity. Initially, Spice Shuttle was to operate four flights a day in each direction between Kevadia and Ahmedabad, and the cost of a ticket was Rs 4,800, Business Today reported. Passengers were also given the option to book tickets while on the plane.  

Also read: How DGCA is helping small plane business in India to take UDAN  

SpiceJet had secured 18 seaplane routes under UDAN, including Agatti-Minicoy and Agatti-Kavaratti routes in Lakshadweep, apart from the Ahmedabad-Kevadia route, India Today reported. Regions in the Northeast, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andaman and other coastal areas were also reportedly being evaluated for amphibious plane operations. 

SpiceJet has been conducting seaplane trials in the country since 2017. The first phase was held in Nagpur and Guwahati and the second phase at Mumbai's Girgaum Chowpatty.

The AAI had planned to set up a water aerodrome in Port Blair. SpiceJet had requested the AAI to set up water-to-water flight operations. 

In October 2019, SpiceJet had announced plans to buy more than 100 amphibious planes for an estimated cost of $400 million. It had also signed an agreement with the Japanese seaplane manufacturer, Setouchi Holdings, and approached the Odisha government to operate amphibious planes from the Chilika Lake. 

Sagarmala Seaplane Project Service

As part of the government's big seaplane ambitions, the MoPSW had issued an Expression of Interest (EoI) for the Sagarmala Seaplane Project Service (SSPS) for providing seaplane services in different parts of the country, Deccan Herald reported in January 2021. Routes that were being considered included Delhi’s Yamuna riverfront to Ayodhya, Tehri, Srinagar (Uttarakhand) and Chandigarh; Mumbai to Shirdi, Lonavala and Ganpatipule, and within the archipelagos of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep; Surat to Dwarka, Mandvi and Kandla; and in Khindsi Dam, Nagpur and Erai dam, Chandrapur (in Maharashtra).

Constant interaction with water results in seaplanes having regular maintenance issues. Image courtesy: Twitter/@narendramodi

The project implementation was planned to be through the Sagarmala Development Company Limited (SDCL), and the MoPSW had sought a response to the project from interested operators by January 22 for forming a special purpose vehicle (SPV) with the SDCL to undertake joint development of the SSPS. 

Under UDAN 3.0, the Centre had last year approved subsidised flights from six water airports, including the Guwahati riverfront, Nagarjuna Sagar, Shatrunjay Dam and Umrangso reservoir. The routes awarded for seaplane operations include Sabarmati riverfront to Statue of Unity and Shatrunjay Dam; Guwahati riverfront to Umrangso reservoir, Jorhat and Shillong, and Nagarjuna Sagar to Vijaywada and Hyderabad.

In end-August 2020, the MoCA approved 78 new routes under the fourth round of UDAN. Agatti, Kavaratti and Minicoy islands of Lakshadweep have also been connected by the new routes of UDAN 4.0.

DGCA chips in

The DGCA has played its part in facilitating the operation of seaplanes and small four-seater planes. Earlier, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) used to give approval for short term wet-leasing (hiring with operating crew) seaplanes and four-seater planes. Now that requirement has been removed in a bid to encourage the small plane business. This would go a long way in ensuring that no place in India remains too remote. 

HIstory of seaplanes in India

The importance of seaplanes in bringing about a transportation revolution in India had been recognised long back. On December 30, 2010, the then Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel launched Jal Hans, India's first commercial seaplane service at Mumbai's Juhu aerodrome. It was a six-month pilot project to be implemented in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, for which a joint venture was formed between Pawan Hans Helicopters Limited (PHHL) and the Andaman and Nicobar administration on an equal profit-sharing basis, The Hindu reported.

"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," Patel had said at that time.    

The Jal Hans project was operated by a Canadian-made six-year-old Cessna 208A seaplane, which had a speed of 250 kmph, which could land on most calm waters and also using wheels. The amphibious plane could seat eight passengers and two pilots. The project was planned to link Port Blair and Havelock and other islands in North Andaman. 

In 2013, a commercial seaplane service was launched in Kollam, Kerala by the Kerala Tourism Infrastructure Limited, with the inaugural flight being operated by Kairali Aviation, reported. It was projected as the first commercial seaplane service in mainland India and the second overall after Jal Hans. The project, however, had to be discontinued following protests by the local fishing community.   

In 2014, a seaplane service was launched in Maharashtra with the objective of connecting Mumbai to tourist destinations in the Western Ghats. The idea was to provide an alternative route to the four-five-hour drives on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. This service also had to be suspended, in this case, due to the lack of flyers. 

Union minister Nitin Gadkari had flown on a seaplane during its trial run at Mumbai's Girgaum Chowpatty in December 2017. Gadkari had said in 2016, when he was the Union transport minister, that people could travel from Delhi to Agra by seaplanes on River Yamuna soon, India Today reported. This had the potential of drastically cutting down the time taken by road or rail. The government was also planning to launch hovercrafts and sea buses on the Yamuna and other waterways in the country.

PM Modi's seaplane spectacle

In December 2017, PM Modi rode a seaplane from the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad to Dharoi dam in the Mehsana district to visit the Ambaji temple during the last day of campaigning for the Gujarat Assembly elections. The seaplane plan was made after Modi's roadshow in Ahmedabad was cancelled, NDTV reported. The spectacle also apparently aimed at attracting attention to the development work done in Gujarat. 

Modi boarded the seaplane from near the Sardar Bridge that connected the old city with Ahmedabad West. A special jetty was built to facilitate the boarding from the river.

The single-engine seaplane was flown by a Japanese pilot, according to The Hindu Business Line. The plane, with a capacity to carry 14 passengers, was purportedly the first of its kind in India and was brought to Gujarat to promote tourism.

BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra referred to the event as "Vikas Flying". Hours after the Prime Minister's seaplane ride, Gadkari, the then Union Road Transport and Highways and Shipping Minister, said that seaplanes could revolutionise the transport sector in India, PTI reported. He pointed out that seaplanes could land even on a one-foot deep waterbody and is a cheap mode of transportation, and can do without the expenditures on infrastructure that a traditional aircraft needs. He added that seaplanes would be made available wherever possible in the country, including Uttarakhand and the rest of the Himalayan region, and seaplanes could also be used for travel from Jaipur lake to Udaipur lake in Rajasthan, for example.

In 2018, Gadkari talked about an ambitious plan to bring 10,000 seaplanes into operation over the following two years, according to a PTI report.        

Seaplanes and seaports, in fact, had existed in India during British times too. The Rajsamand Lake, situated 66km north of Udaipur in Rajasthan, once served as a seaplane base for Imperial Airways during the Second World War, according to a Times of India report. The lake had been used as a marine drome for six years. A heavy iron chain anchor was visible when the lake dried up in 2003. Historian Shri Krishna Jugnu told The Times of India that in 1937, a jetty was built using iron links from four sides to facilitate the operation of seaplanes. The flights connected England and Australia and the plane arrived in Rajsamand from Tighra in Madhya Pradesh. 

Erstwhile maharajas used to fly their own seaplanes from several lakes from the 1930s to the 1970s, Mark Martin, founder and CEO of aviation compliance and safety firm Martin Consulting, told The Print.

India's first homemade microlight seaplane

Microlight seaplanes can potentially add another angle to tourism, allowing joyrides in the many water parks, lakes and other water bodies in India.

The microlight seaplane made by Pushparaj Ameen. Image courtesy: Pushparaj Ameen

Plane Vanilla recently interviewed an aeromodelling instructor from Karnataka, Pushparaj Ameen, who, along with a group of his students, built and flew India's first homemade microlight seaplane and entered the India Book of Records. The project showcased the power of Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India) and Make in India -- two initiatives that have been particularly close to PM Modi's heart. Ameen revealed his intention to construct four-seater seaplanes too. 

Some weaknesses

However, there are a few weaknesses of seaplanes. The seaplane service between the Statue of Unity and the Sabarmati riverfront had to be suspended on more than one occasion as the aircraft had to be sent back to the Maldives for maintenance. India does not have the specialised hangar facility required for the maintenance of seaplanes. Captain Ajay Chauhan, the Director of Civil Aviation, Government of Gujarat, told The Sunday Express that the seaplane had to mandatorily undergo maintenance at various levels, depending upon its flying hours and distance flown.

According to a SpiceJet official, the seaplane, apart from weekly maintenance, requires maintenance every four to six months, and for that a wet-and-dry dock is necessary, The Times of India reported. Such a facility is still under construction at the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad. 

Seaplanes also routinely encounter different elements, much more than a normal aircraft, and may develop maintenance problems due to their interaction with water, an Aviation Week article pointed out. Saltwater can corrode the plane's metal. Water can damage propellers, causing them to split along their lengths. Pre-flight inspection is also difficult as the aircraft operates on water and pilots may not get access to all parts of the airframe unless the plane is repositioned while afloat. There are issues with water seepage as well. Icy waters, which seaplanes may encounter in Kashmir, for instance, could also harm the aircraft. 

The Statue of Unity to Sabarmati riverfront seaplane service has not been operational for the past two months in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, but once it restarts and after the ambitious plan chalked out by the Indian government bears fruit, transportation in India is sure to undergo a sea change.

The market for seaplanes has not existed in any significant way in India, despite its massive potential, and it is only now perhaps that seaplanes have started to get their due. The seaplane project in India could run into some complications as aviation is a central subject, while the infrastructure for the operation of seaplanes is to be built by the states, Satyendra Pandey, Managing Director of aviation finance firm AT-TV told The Print. The potential displacement of fishing communities could also be an issue, he added.