After several failed starts, fresh attempts are being made to get seaplanes airborne in the country. While a shutterbug-happy PM Narendra Modi sailed into Mehsana district on a seaplane from the Sabarmati river for his poll campaign today; over the weekend, the Gurugram-based no-frills airline SpiceJet showcased how its seaplane service would look like. The airline’s 14-seater amphibious plane took off from the Mumbai coast at Girgaum Chowpatty after trying out land trials in the first-phase in Nagpur and Guwahati. The airline plans to deploy 100 such aircrafts and has entered into a $400 million deal with Japan’s Setouchi Holdings. Amphibious planes can take off from land as well as water bodies without landing strips, enabling access to areas that lack other modes of transport.
Incidentally, the first seaplane service was introduced in 2010 in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands but the services were discontinued as it turned out to be financially unviable. The Andaman administration had subsidised travel for locals — while islanders were being charged sub-Rs.1,000 for the service, tourists were charged four times the price. In 2014, a seaplane service was launched by Mehair, in association with the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation, to connect Mumbai to tourist destinations in the Western Ghats. It was seen as an alternative to the four- to five-hour long drives on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. But the service failed to take off owing to poor response, thanks to expensive fares. For example, a one-way fare for a Mumbai-Aamby Valley flight was being offered in the Rs.4,500-Rs.5,000 range.
Three years later, Nitin Gadkari, the union minister for road transport & highways, shipping and water resources, is driving the agenda to provide regional connectivity to the remotest parts of the country. Currently, only 75 of the 450 locations designated as an airport or airstrip by the government are being used for commercial flights. The Modi government is now planning to put in place a policy within the next three months to convert 111 rivers into waterways and use lakes and dams as airports with minimal expenditure by using floating jetties. Besides, under the regional air connectivity scheme UDAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik), an operator is likely to receive funds from the government in the form of viability gap funding if a fixed number of seats is sold at fares of up to Rs.2,500. Further, the exclusivity clause that permits one airline to fly on a particular route in the initial years could also be done away with. SpiceJet is pitching the seaplane service as an extension of the UDAN scheme. It is exploring air connectivity in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andaman, Lakshadweep, the Northeast and other coastal areas via water bodies such as rivers and inland waterways.
Last year, the country’s airlines handled 100 million domestic passengers, making India the third-largest market after China and the US. At present, only a handful of countries such as Canada, Japan, South Africa, Maldives and the US offer seaplane services. Whether India would finally see seaplanes becoming a reality would depend on a lot of variables, including getting the pricing right, till such time any attempt at getting seaborne will just be a flight of fancy.