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Amphibian Taxis Waiting For Take Off

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As the crow flies you could make it to Juhu from Nariman Point in five minutes perhaps. But by surface transport, it takes the average Mumbaikar about 90 mins or more and costs approximately Rs 500 in a pre-paid cab. Come September, you could travel with the crow and fly across the distance  - for just Rs 250 more.
 
That's if the plans of Maritime Energy Heli Air Services (Mehair) – India's first private seaplane operator which runs an amphibian aircraft in the Andamans - takes wing.
 
Just think about it -- India has a coastline of about 7,500 km, and a rich network of lakes and rivers. And yet, till now there’s been only one seaplane service operating in the country -- in the Andamans. And that too it's a subsidised essential service -- mainly to ferry government officials and locals between the various islands that make up Andaman & Nicobar.
 
All that might undergo a sea change this month, on 27 May to be precise, when a five-seater Cessna 206 H operated by Kairali Aviation takes wing from the Thiruvananthapuram airport and glides down onto the scenic waters of Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam.
 
The Kerala government has thrown open its skies -- and waters -- to seaplane operators in a bid to decongest its roads. From June, seaplane tourism is all set to take off in the beautiful coastal state. Kairali Aviation is the first of the five seaplane operators registered with the Kerala government to get out of its hangar and glide into the backwaters. Others like Bharat Aviation, Wings Aviation, public sector company Pawan Hans and Mehair too are all set to taxi on the waterways of the state.
 
Before it tests the waters of Kerala though, Mehair will be launching out of Mumbai first. It will ferry tourists from the millennium city to lakes and dams in Shirdi, Lonavala, Amby Valley and Lavassa. Once the monsoons are over, and the sea less choppy, it plans to launch a seaplane service that will fly Mumbaites from Juhu to Nariman Point - well it's Girgaon Chowpatty (close to Nariman Point) to Juhu actually, in seven minutes flat (three minutes is flight time - rest in boarding and deboarding).
 
But it’s not plane sailing yet for the seaplane operators. Siddharth Verma, Director, Mehair says that around 25 licences -- including environmental clearances -- have to be obtained to take off in Maharashtra. "We have obtained most of these, one or two still remain," he says.
 
Col Sasikumar, chairman and managing director of Kairali Aviation, is also busy waiting for last minute clearances from the Director General of Civil Aviation for the airworthiness -– or seaworthiness -– of his Cessna. “The plane will go through checks from 18 May and we expect to get a go ahead in time for the inaugural run on 27 May,” he says.
 
Also crossing his fingers that the inaugural flight takes off on its scheduled launch date is Suman Billa, Secretary, Tourism Kerala. The seaplane service is a pet project for the Kerala government which hopes it will reduce congestion on the narrow roads of the state and spur tourism further. “It opens an alternate supplementary transportation for tourists. A tourist coming from London can now land at Kochi airport and seamlessly interchange aircraft and fly down to backwater resorts,” says Billa, describing how the service will provide last mile connectivity -– just as it happens in Maldives or Mauritius.
 
The Kerala government has set up four floating docks at Ashtamudi Lake (Kollam), Vembanad lake (Alleppey), one in Kumarakam and in Bekal, all tourist hotspots in the region. The seaplanes will operate from four airports, Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Kozhikode and Mangalore. Tariffs are likely to be between Rs 3,000 and Rs 4,000. “We have declared an open sky policy and will let the market dictate prices,” says Billa.
 
 
Suman Billa, Kerala Tourism
"We will let the market dictate prices” Suman Billa, secretary, Kerala Tourism
Billa feels the seaplane tourism service will have good traction in the state which has positioned itself as a destination for the well heeled. After all seaplanes, are a huge success in the Maldives and Mauritius. “We got 8 lakh international tourists last year and a crore domestic tourists. Even if a fraction of them take to the skies, it will be more than we can handle,” he says.
 
Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation too is embracing the idea of seaplane tourism and inked an MoU with Mehair.  During the first phase of the project, Shirdi, Amby Valley, will get connected. Those with weekend homes at Alibaug can look forward to zipping across in a seaplane. In Phase two, when Mehair acquires more aircraft, it will fly to Konkan coast destinations such as Ganpatipule, one of the weekend getaways in the state. "This will reduce the travel fatigue associated with weekend drives,"says Verma.
 
And once it gets the 19-seater Viking 400 seater series, it will operate the sea-service for Mumbai's commuters from Girgaum Chowpatty and Juhu beach. Although the city service sounds like a great boon for Mumbai's harried commuters, the main focus for Mehair however appears to be tourism. It plans to operate seaplanes in Goa and Andhra Pradesh as well.
 
Kairali's Sasikumar says that the company is starting with one plane, the five-seater Cessna 206H. But the company has placed orders for a nine seater Cessna Caravan, and a 19-seater twin-engine Dornier Amphibian. There is an issue about the lack of trained seaplane pilots in India. But he says, right now, Kairali has got two Belgian expat pilots on board. "We are training our own pilots to operate the seaplane," he says.
 
Verma too sounds confident. He says Mehair is starting off with a nine-seater Cessna Caravan amphibian and will later get a 19-seater twin-engine Viking 400 series to ride the seas along the Konkan coast. He says 12 security cleared expat pilots have been lined up.
 
More Profitable Waters
Verma says that Andamans, where the seaplane service is run as an essential service and is subsidised by the government, is a different kettle of fish from places such as Kerala, Goa and Maharashtra, where seaplane operators can look at a profitable venture. "In the Andamans, the locals form 75 per cent of our passengers with only 25 per cent tourists. But here, we can run it as a pure tourist service and have a proper marketing strategy," he says.
 
Billa too sounds quite optimistic about the success. After all, the tourist stands to save time and avoid bad roads and the service is reasonably priced. 
 
Well, the plans sound good on paper. But in the past many ambitious waterway projects have run into choppy waters. Take the hovercraft service in Mumbai which ran briefly. Which is why there are still many skeptics.
 
"It’s a great idea. But in India the ecosystem does not support general aviation," comments J.B. Singh, CEO of GDS company Interglobe Technology Quotient, and a veteran in the aviation business. So let's wait and see if this time around the seaplane idea manages to get out of the deep waters that is the Indian bureaucracy.
 
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