Are seaplanes ready for a European comeback? Croatia's European Coastal Airlines thinks so

Soon in Croatia...Picture: European Coastal Airlines

Soon in Croatia...Picture: European Coastal Airlines

There was a time, before the start of the jet era, when seaplanes were quite ubiquitous, of course that was a time when most aircraft had short range, airport infrastructure was precarious, if existent at all, and commercial traffic extremely thin...Pan Am operated the famous Clippers and even...surprise, surprise!...Ryanair operated seaplanes as late as the 1980s, well before becoming the low cost giant we know today!

While there are parts of the World where seaplanes are still in use, like the vast spaces of Canada and the Pacific Northwest or in the Maldives, there is hardly any seaplane commercial operation in Europe, which keeps me wondering why...

I am not an expert on seaplanes, but I am wondering whether it is because the economics aren't just there, or is it the regulatory framework that discourages this modality of transport...after all, wouldn't seaplanes make for an efficient way to reach small communities and islands? I am thinking about those remote outspots where it makes little sense to build an maintain an airport while being, at the same time, the sort of isolated destinations many affluent-but-short-of-time travelers would be willing to get to for a nice holiday.

While I keep looking for an answer to these questions, the seaplane might actually be poised to experience a European revival...

It is precisely in two of the countries that best combine the key elements for seaplane success: a challenging geography with plenty of small islands and strong tourist appeal.

Whereas Greece is currently reviewing a law that will facilitate the set up of seaplane operations, next door in Croatia's Adriatic coast, interesting projects are taking shape.

The Adriseaplanes initiative, supported by the European Union and the Adriatic Cross-border Cooperation Programme (IPA), aims to links all of the inhabited Croatian islands withing themselves and with the Croatian and Italian mainlands through the use of seaplanes.

It is within this framework that Zagreb-based European Coastal Airlines (ECA) is starting scheduled operations this coming May. The company plans to invest €40M and create 400 jobs through the development of an Adriatic regular network, using DeHavilland Twin Otter 300-6 and Grumman Goose seaplanes.

I got in touch with ECA's management team to learn more details about this very original project. What follows are the replies of ECA's CEO Klaus Dieter Martin to my interview:

Q: ECA is launching this coming May. Is it going to be a seasonal service only or year-round?

A: We will be flying all year around to most of our destinations, as we are seeing our service not only as a touristic bonus, but as an infrastructure project, which shall create sustainable jobs on the islands and enrich the life of the poeple of the islands, as well as their possibilities to reach the mainland fast, reliable and environmentally friendly.

Q: Is it going to operate regular scheduled services or on demand, or a mix of both?

A: We will be the first scheduled seaplane operator in Europe, flying to our destinations daily at least twice. We are ready to increasy rotations to frequented islands according to demand and additionally we are getting already requests for charter operations and will fly for sure as well upon special demand, es we can reach places in the adriatic no other airline can service.

Q: What range of prices can be expected?

A: Prices will be affordable for Croatian citizens and tourists alike. You need to know here that it is our utmost goal to keep the rates of our tickets as affordable as possible. Croatian Buying power is - compared to european average - considerably lower which makes this task even harder. We will support our ticket prices with additional revenues we will be generating, such as Food & Drinks Sales at our destinations. Rates will start as little as 99 HRK (13EUR) and depend on the flight and the booking situation.

Q: Any plans to expand the service to other locations?

A: Our plans are to start operating in 2014 in Croatia and even connect Italy with Zadar already. We started communications in Ancona in order to realise this amazing connection already in 2014. In 2015 we will look into connecting the northern adriatic and new locations in the South. A 2nd phase of our project includes the european expansion to other destinations in the Mediterranean.

Q: There are few seaplane operations in Europe...Why seaplanes are not more commonly used in Europe to serve small islands and remote coastal locations?

A: Very well observed, indeed there is a high potential in Europe to operate seaplanes for locations which are remote. The European Union expresses its interest in developing seaplane operations in Europe as they do see the potential of this efficient connectivity here, too.

We are pioneering in this field and are paving the way for others to come. And this is basically the reason, too. What we want to create is as special as complex - we want to fly with seaplane to harbours in the adriatic. Luckely the Croatian laws are regulating seaplane operations, nevertheless there is a lot to do before you can start flying.

Have a look how the Maldives developed since the seaplane operation started - from reaching only Male in a simple way and than take water taxis for hours you are now reaching islands which only developed because of seaplane operations.

Now imagine this in Europe, the Med etc. The potential is tremendous.

Q: Are your seaports located inside ports? do you own and operate all of them?

A: Our locations are always inside ports - where the passenger transportation is happening. This is related to various facts, two of them are that

1) We need sheltered positions for our seaplane operations and the ports are regularly best sheltered and

2) we would like to decrease traffic and not increase because we are located in places where people have a hard time to go to make use of our services.

The seaports you see on our website are the orginal project plans, due to a lack of time we will start with a reduced form, such as a jetty and passenger facilities on land.

Q: Any estimated figures about this upcoming seaplane operation that you could share with our readers?

A: The key figures of our project: We want to invest in excess of 40 Million Euros in the first two years and create more than 400 jobs. Research made in these fields come to the conclusion that 3rd parties will create another min. of 800 jobs on top related to our services. In a country like Croatia with a youth unemployment of almost 50% and a general unemployment rate of more than 20% we believe this is a great infrastructure project - not only for us, but for the Republic of Croatia.