After years of decline, a new wave of operators are poised to revive Europe's moribund seaplane services. Are there enough aircraft to keep them afloat?

Seaplanes have become a byword in Europe for nostalgia, conjuring visions of a bygone era in the early decades of the last century when seaplanes and flying boats were a common feature in its skies and, on its shores, airframers were busy building and developing designs to satisfy the demand for waterborne air transport.

Many places, notably Alaska, Canada, the Maldives, the Seychelles and the Caribbean, have for years played host to thriving seaplane operations, mostly supporting remote communities and tourist activities. In contrast, the European seaplane market went into an irreversible decline around 60 years ago, where it remained until the turn of the century.

Air sealines 
© AirSeaLines   
Greek operator AirSeaLines runs a thriving charter and sightseeing business with DHC-6 Twin Otters

"Seaplanes were heavily used in Europe during the Second World War, but when it ended, and the new jet era began, people no longer wanted them," says Aqua Airlines head of flight operations Capt Muro Calvano. "Flying boats like the Grumman Goose with their heavy hulls were discarded and many operations suspended. Six decades later and the industry is undergoing a renaissance."

Aqua is one of a growing number of seaplane operators in Europe to emerge over the past three years. The Milan-based company is poised to begin services within weeks, using float-equipped Cessna 208 Caravans, making it Italy's first commercial seaplane operator in over six decades.

Aqua is attempting to certificate and use a plethora of old seaplane bases used by the US forces during the Second World War and strategically located along the Italian coastline. "The market for seaplane transport in Europe is potentially huge," says Calvano. "We aim to serve millions of tourists and residents who want to connect from the mainland to the many harbours and small islands off the coast without a long drive or boat trip."

Greek potential

Michael Assariotis, sales and marketing manager of Greek seaplane operator AirSea Lines, believes "seaplanes are opening remote and inaccessible regions of Europe and offer an exciting and speedy alternative to inadequate modes of transport". The Athens-based operator, partly owned by Canadian seaplane company Harbour Air, began flying three years ago and is believed to be Europe's only scheduled commercial seaplane operator, with an expanding fleet of nine de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters. AirSea also runs a thriving charter and sightseeing business.

Assariotis says demand for the seaplane operations is unprecedented, "and we have barely scratched the surface".

He adds: "There are over 2,000 islands in Greece, of which 270 are inhabited and serviced by only 28 airports. Greece has a population of 11 million and the same numbers of tourists visit the county each year. The seaplane will revolutionise travel and change the demographic not only in Greece, but elsewhere in Europe."

This view is supported by David West, founder and managing director of the Scottish operator Loch Lomond Seaplanes, which began operations three years ago with an eight-seat Cessna 206T Turbo Stationair, to service Scotland's golfing, fishing and hospitality industries and provide a regular means of transport to many of the remote areas of the country. Loch Lomond is also set this month to launch Europe's first regular on-demand charter service from a city-centre waterfront - the River Clyde in Glasgow. "We have received an overwhelming response both from the public and industry. We are always busy."

Loch Lomond plans to cater for anticipated demand with a fleet of six Cessna 208s and up to three de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beavers within 24 months "on specialist routes".

West says the demand for seaplane services in Europe is restricting the availability of popular seaplane models such as the out-of-production Beaver, DHC-3 Otter and Twin Otter. "Sourcing good aircraft can be a problem," he says.

This conundrum faced by operators has been the driving force behind Canada's Viking Air plan to restart production of the Twin Otter. The British Columbia-based company, which two years ago acquired the type certificates from Bombardier for seven de Havilland Canada aircraft, says it had set a benchmark of 12 advance deposits to make it viable to restart production, but orders and options so far exceed 27. "Half of the commitments received so far are from seaplane operators," says Viking president and managing director David Curtis. He says Europe has around 20% of the global Twin Otter seaplane fleet.

AirSea makes no secret of its desire to be a major customer for the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-34-powered Twin Otter Series 400, scheduled to enter service by early 2009, and predicts a potential for 70 aircraft to serve the domestic market alone. The company is also establishing a licensed training school for seaplane pilots in preparation for the anticipated boom.

The Beaver and single-engined Otter are also proving their worth as seaplanes, Curtis says, and global demand for these types may persuade Viking to add them to the new production line in due course.

Italy's Aqua, which has also expressed an interest in the Twin Otter, intends to operate a fleet of three Cessna 208s by the end of the year from around 15 seaplane bases. Aqua is also keen on the flying boat concept and is looking at dedicated designs such as the Beriev Be-200. "The flying boat is the most reliable way of moving large groups of around 30-40 people across stretches of water," says Calvano. "We will test the concept to see what happens, but we expect a fleet of up to 40 aircraft should be sufficient," he says.

While optimism and expectation among Europe's seaplane operators is high, their confidence is peppered with frustration. "It has taken a number of years to get to this point and it's been tough," says AirSea's Assariotis.

Bureaucratic hold-ups

His frustration is mirrored by other companies, all of which claim that the key factors hampering the growth of seaplane services in Europe are bureaucracy, regulation and ignorance. Seaplane services are a new phenomenon to Europe's regulators and, as there are no specific rules governing these types of operations at a pan-European level, they often fall within the remit of national aviation and maritime authorities, which have differing rules. "It can be a tug of war between the two," says Loch Lomond's West. "When you are in the air you become an aircraft and fall under aviation regulations, but when you hit the water you become a vessel and fall under the maritime authority remit. It can be confusing."

Worse still, he says, putting in a dock to accommodate the seaplane "sometimes needs the approval of 15 different organisations in a developed public-service world like Europe".

Aqua has spent three years developing a legal framework for seaplane operation in Italy. "It has been really hard work getting to this stage in a country that is renowned for its bureaucracy, but the romantic and historic view of seaplanes shared by many [decision makers] here has certainly helped us to reach our goal," says Calvano.

West believes as seaplane operations continue to increase, the European Aviation Safety Agency should develop a clear set of rules for operators based on the best practices of seaplane operations in Canada and the USA. "Seaplanes have a tremendous future here, so we don't need a heavy handed approach," he says.

Source: Flight International