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

SpiceJet has secured 18 seaplane routes under the government's Ude Desh Ka Aam Naagrik (UDAN) scheme

Imagine taking a seaplane from Delhi’s Yamuna riverfront and landing in Ayodhya for a visit to the Ram temple. Well, if all goes according to plan, this will be a reality soon.

In what would be seen as a major step towards connectivity to remote locations and a boost to tourism, the government is initiating the process to launch seaplane services on several nationwide routes.

The ministry of ports, shipping and waterways has issued an expression of interest (EoI) for the Sagarmala Seaplane Service (SSPS), according to a Deccan Herald report.   

The project will take place under a special purpose vehicle (SPV) framework through prospective airline operators. Sagarmala Development Company Limited (SDCL) under the ministry of ports, shipping and waterways will work on the project, the government said in a statement. The ministry has sought a response from interested operators by January 22, 2021. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had on October 31, 2020, launched a seaplane service between the Statue of Unity at Kevadia and Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad on the 145th birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The service is operated by budget carrier SpiceJet under the banner of Spice Shuttle. It would cut the five-hour journey time between these two points to only 45 minutes, according to Gujarat Tourism. Four flights were planned every day.

SpiceJet launched a seaplane service between the Statue of Unity and Sabarmati riverfront. Image courtesy: Twitter/@flyspicejet

For this, SpiceJet had wet-leased an 18-seater Twin Otter 300 seaplane from the national airline of Maldives -- Maldivian Aero. 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.

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The carrier had also secured 18 seaplane routes under the government's Ude Desh Ka Aam Naagrik (UDAN) scheme. The service, however, was interrupted with the seaplane flying back to the Maldives for routine maintenance. 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.  

In December, however, SpiceJet expressed its inability to operate amphibian planes for Andaman and Nicobar islands owing to a lack of infrastructure, according to CNBC-TV18. The Airports Authority of India (AAI) had planned to set up a water aerodrome in Port Blair. SpiceJet had requested AAI to set up water-to-water flight operations. 

In October 2019, SpiceJet had announced plans to buy over 100 amphibian 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 amphibian planes from the Chilika Lake.   

Possible routes

The proposed origins and destinations under the new plan will include several islands of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep, and the Guwahati riverfront and Umrangso Reservoir in Assam.

The Yamuna riverfront in Delhi as a hub will get seaplane connectivity to Ayodhaya, Tehri, Srinagar (Uttarakhand), Chandigarh. Mumbai to Shirdi, Lonavala and Ganpatipule routes are also being considered. Surat will have seaplane services to Dwarka, Mandvi, and Kandla.

The services will be in Khindsi Dam, Nagpur and Erai Dam and Chandrapur in Maharashtra, as per details shared by the ministry of ports, shipping and waterways.

About the setup

The SDCL is exploring plans to leverage the potential of the vast coastline and numerous water bodies or rivers across India by starting an ambitious seaplane operation.

What’s the need to set up seaplane services?

Apart from providing air connectivity to various remote religious or tourist places, it will boost tourism for domestic and international holidaymakers. It will save travel time and stimulate localised short distance travel especially in the hilly regions or across rivers, lakes and other water bodies.

Possible boost to tourism

Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways Mansukh Mandaviya said that the initiation of seaplane operations align with PM Modi’s vision of improving connectivity across the nation and make India an attractive destination for tourists by providing air connectivity to numerous remote religious or tourist places.

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Unexplored locations near the water bodies will make the journey easier. It will generate employment opportunities and stimulate tourism in these new locations, which will consequently contribute to the country’s GDP in the long run, the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways stated.

Seaplanes can land and take off from water, thus providing access to areas that lack landing strips or runways. These aircraft are much smaller than ordinary commercial aircraft and can land on water bodies, gravel and grass, providing the perfect opportunity to bring the remotest areas into the mainstream aviation network. Operating seaplanes doesn't involve the high cost of building airports and runways. However, these aircraft need more maintenance than bigger jets, SpiceJet informed.

(Cover image and video courtesy Twitter/@GujaratTourism)