Setting sail for the skies

Sixty years after they fell out of fashion, seaplanes are set for a resurgence, fuelled by growing demand from tourists eager to get off the beaten track
Dornier Seawings’ Seastar will be able to carry 12 passengers over a distance of more than 1,000 miles © Jens Schnabel

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

When the Dornier Do26 took off on its first flight in May 1938, it was at the cutting edge of aviation technology, the latest in a rapid succession of new seaplanes that promised to revolutionise long-distance travel.

It wasn’t to be. Despite being hailed as the “most beautiful flying-boat ever built”, and impressing the world the following year by flying from Germany to Chile carrying relief supplies to earthquake victims, the Do26 was shortlived — the final one being retired in 1945. Seaplanes in general were rapidly falling out of fashion, rendered redundant by the sharp growth in the number of airports and airstrips. Their less aerodynamic bodies left them lagging behind as conventional planes grew faster, and they were about to be eclipsed completely by the dawning of the jet age.

Now though, the seaplane seems set for a surprise comeback. At the Singapore Airshow last month, the grandson of Dornier’s founder announced that — after a gap of eight decades — production is underway on the first new Dornier seaplane since the Do26. The Seastar will be able to carry 12 passengers at more than 200mph, and with a range of more than 1,000 miles. The first is due for delivery in 2018; the company says it has already taken 11 firm orders and options but expects to make 300 to 350 Seastars over the next 10 years in order to meet surging demand.

The Seastar was originally developed in the 1980s but never made it into commercial production. That has finally changed, thanks to a favourable tailwind from China — the plane will be manufactured by Dornier Seawings, a joint venture between Conrado Dornier, whose grandfather Claude founded Dornier in 1914, and two Chinese companies, Wuxi Industrial Development Group and Wuxi Communications Industry Group. The plan is for two assembly lines running concurrently at Dornier’s base in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany and in Wuxi, China.

“The Chinese see they have a huge market within their own country, with a long coastline and lots of inland bodies of water, combined with a poor infrastructure, so a seaplane offers great advantages,” says Conrado Dornier.

He predicts 50 per cent of sales to governments for coastal patrols, search and rescue and so on, and 20 to 30 per cent to small commercial airlines, particularly those focused on leisure travel. “A seaplane allows you to develop tourist destinations and link them easily, safely and economically — something you can’t do with a helicopter — so it opens up new opportunities in tourism, especially for the high-end market, off the beaten track.”

Viking’s new 400S seaplane © Heath Moffatt

More surprising still is that the Seastar wasn’t the only new seaplane at Singapore. Also attracting attention was the Viking 400S, the first dedicated seaplane version of the company’s existing Twin Otter. The Canadian manufacturer currently adds floats to its conventional aircraft to make them amphibious, delivering two to three such planes per year, but hopes the 400S will lead to a rapid rise in orders. Deliveries are due to start early in 2017 and Viking anticipates sales of up to 100 over the next decade to keep up with “great demand in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and southern Europe”.

While the key seaplane manufacturers refuse to release detailed sales figures, the growing number of start-up seaplane airlines suggests such bullish predictions could be justified.

Among them is Kerala Seaplane, which is due to begin services above the south-western tip of India by next month. Using two 10-seater Cessna 208 Grand Caravan turbo props, it intends to connect Cochin, Trivandrum, Calicut, Alleppey and Kollam, eventually expanding to reach Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands. And while seaplanes inevitably carry associations with aviation’s “golden age”, today they are not necessarily restricted to the elite. Kerala Seaplane plans to price Cochin to Trivandrum tickets at Rs5,500 (£58), for example, and Cochin to Alleppey at Rs3,500 (£37).

A European Coastal Airlines seaplane flying towards Hvar in Croatia © Studio Blagec SPLIT

Like other fledgling seaplane airlines, getting to this point has not been easy. Kerala Seaplane has been hit with strikes, delays in government permits, and opposition from local fishermen, which stalled the launch for two years. In the Adriatic, European Coastal Airlines had a similarly troubled gestation before its launch in 2014.

It traces its roots back to the 1990s, when a group of German airline pilots clubbed together to buy a 1947 Grumman Goose to fly around the lakes of Canada. In 1995, the pilots decided to move their Goose to Europe, but found that only Croatia would admit them. They went on to develop plans for a scheduled service around the Croatian islands, but failed to win permits, then in 2008 their chief financial officer was killed in a seaplane crash.

Official opposition finally softened when Croatia joined the EU in 2013, and the government began enthusiastically promoting tourism. ECA won its licence on August 26 2014, and started services the following day. This year it will operate eight aircraft, flying domestically and to Pescara, Italy, and there are plans to expand to Greece, Montenegro, and Venice’s lagoon.

As well as the growing demand from developing countries and a tourism industry in search of ever more remote destinations, the seaplane’s resurgence has been helped, more prosaically, by the development of appropriate legislation and regulation. When a small Scottish airline, Loch Lomond Seaplanes, started up in 2004 (becoming the UK’s first seaplane service for 50 years) it found existing rules wouldn’t cover larger seaplanes. It worked with the UK Civil Aviation Authority to develop a new regulatory framework, which paved the way for other nations without a tradition of seaplanes to follow suit.

Among the casualties of that lack of legislation was AirSea Lines, a Greek-Canadian company based in Corfu. Despite Greece being ideal for seaplanes — with more than 200 inhabited islands and often only slow ferry links — the airline folded after four years in 2008, blaming bureaucratic hurdles. When, in 2013, the Greek parliament passed legislation setting out a legal framework for seaplane operations, businessman Nicolas Charalambous sensed an opportunity. He quickly set up Hellenic Seaplanes, offering charter services with a single leased seaplane.

In June, however, the airline will launch the country’s only scheduled services, allowing tourists to leap between Volos, the Sporades islands, Skyros, Patmos, Thessaloniki, Tinos, Corfu, and Paxos. “Existing travel methods are so time-consuming that ‘same-day’ business trips are uneconomical and weekend travel of any distance is not viable,” says Charalambous.

He is busy licensing “waterdromes” around Greece and hopes to develop a network of more than 100 — plans buoyed by a 9 per cent increase in tourism last year. “Tourism is the heavy industry of Greece,” says Charalambous. “Even with the unstable politics, touristic projects are low-risk, high-value. No crisis can stop us.”

More seaplane services have started recently in Turkey, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, and other new aircraft are on the horizon. The Aviation Industry Corporation of China is currently assembling the AG-600, the world’s biggest seaplane, able to carry 50 passengers. The first flight is due to take place this year.

Back in Scotland, Loch Lomond Seaplanes has just taken delivery of a brand new 10-seat Cessna 208 Caravan and next month will start scheduled services from Loch Lomond to the Isle of Skye. More enticing, however, are rumours of plans for a new route from the UK capital. David West, managing director and chief pilot, remains tight-lipped but admits plans for London are “well advanced” and that proving flights have taken place, starting from a conventional land airport and landing on water, 25 minutes out of the city.

Photographs: Jens Schnabel; Heath Moffatt; Studio Blagec SPLIT

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.