Determined to continue flying seaplanes despite the myriad challenges posed by operating in and over salt water, St Croix-based regional operator Seaborne Airlines has begun spreading out its overhead costs by introducing wheeled turboprop service.
The carrier's fleet comprises six de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters: four seaplanes - described thusly after the wheels have been replaced with WipLine floats - and two land planes. Additionally, two seaplanes are currently in the US mainland being overhauled, says Seaborne director of operations Wayne D'Amico.
For years Seaborne has offered high-frequency seaplane flights between the harbours of downtown St Croix and St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.
The seaplane service, with a seating capacity of up to 17, will continue to distinguish Seaborne amongst its island-hopping peers. The carrier is now the only Part 121 seaplane operator serving the Caribbean, after Chalk's Ocean Airways was forced to ground its seaplane fleet following the 19 December 2005 break-up of a 1947-manufactured Grumman G-73T Turbo Mallard.
© Chris Boziel
"In my opinion, no other equipment can operate in these types of conditions as well as the Twin Otter. It's built like a truck," says Seaborne president and CEO Omer ErSelcuk, noting that Seaborne's safety record is unblemished.
He adds: "The nice thing is we can do it on land too." To that end, a newly-launched Seaborne airshuttle now serves St Croix and St Thomas airports and offers supplemental service to San Juan's Isla Grande airport.
"With the airport operations, we're stabilizing the business. Once our Part 121 overhead is spread out, we will be able to generate enough return to make the seaplane side a viable entity along with the airport side," says ErSelcuk.
He says that while "everyone gets enthralled with the romance of the seaplane, they don't understand the cost of doing it safely". Of paramount consideration is the constant battle of operating "multi-million dollar equipment in the most corrosive element on the planet - warm salt water" and the associated maintenance costs.
Operating solely as a seaplane in salt water, a Twin Otter must undergo major overhaul every three years at a cost of about $1.5 million. The overhaul process takes up to two years for a single seaplane.
ErSelcuk notes that the maintenance expense alone is equivalent to the bluebook value of the 30-year old aircraft. Compare that to the 10-year major overhaul cycle of Twin Otters that operate on wheels at the airport and it is clear why Seaborne has added a wheeled element to its operation.
"As things exist, the business model for seaplanes does not work. But if you can balance out your business, stretch out the cost, and stretch the useable life of aircraft to 10 years, you can make it work. The wheel operation also provides an alternative [to the seaplane service]. The name of the game is to stretch the huge overhead of flying seaplanes," says ErSelcuk.
Aiding this effort is a new maintenance programme that will see Seaborne use a different rotation aimed at extending the life of the aircraft to 4.5 years before major overhaul, a full 1.5 years more than the current cycle.
As it stands today, an aircraft is taken out of service for four days every four weeks. "But if you take the aircraft out for seven days every three weeks that gives us more time to do the work and [corrosion] prevention procedures. It takes the aircraft out longer to extend the life. So the aircraft is out nine days per month instead of four days. We're doubling the time out of service," says ErSelcuk.
This procedure will start being employed on the next fresh seaplane that comes to Seaborne.
Another means of extending aircraft life is to move a seaplane over to the wheeled service. ErSelcuk says the company can take an aircraft out of seaplane service early, put $300,000 into working on it and put it out at the airport. "That includes taking the floats off and putting wheels on," he says.
"When one seaplane is taken out, and the wheels added, the fleet will be three seaplanes and three wheeled," says ErSelcuk.
However, Seaborne is also seeking to acquire at least two more Twin Otters, one on wheels and another for floats. This would enable the carrier to bring a Twin Otter out of seaplane service sooner, and put another into major overhaul.
Whilst he does not hide his love of seaplanes, ErSelcuk says: "I commend anyone who wants to get into the airline business but I really commend someone who wants to try and fly seaplanes."