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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Before Vijay Rupani govt stepped down, Gujarat sought Centre’s help to revive seaplane project

New minister for civil aviation, Purneshkumar Modi, said that he has decided to write to Scindia again to expedite the revival of the service.

Written by Aditi Raja | Vadodara |
Updated: September 24, 2021 12:45:22 pm
Vijay Rupani government, Vijay Rupani news, Vijay Rupani latest news, Gujarat news, Gujarat latest news, Gujarat government, india news, indian expressFormer Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani. (File)

Just days before it was ousted, the Vijay Rupani government had begun looking for options to resurrect the much-hyped seaplane service connecting Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad to Statue of Unity in Kevadia in Narmada district that has been inoperative since April this year.

In a confidential letter, accessed by The Indian Express, then Gujarat Minister for Civil Aviation, Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, wrote a letter to Union Minister for Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia on September 1, seeking his “intervention in a sensitive matter”, proposing that the Union government could “provide the capital cost of Rs 120 crore to Gujarat State Aviation Infrastructure Company Limited (GUJSAIL) for acquiring two seaplanes as a “pilot project” for operation from Sabarmati Riverfront (SRF) to Statue of Unity (SoU).

New minister for civil aviation, Purneshkumar Modi, said that he has decided to write to Scindia again to expedite the revival of the service.

In an apparent tone of resignation that SpiceJet, which was given the contract, would be unable to resume service, Chudasama intimated to the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) that despite multiple attempts to help the operator with subsidies, the project failed to take off and is attracting “negative media publicity”.

Proposing a way out to resume the seaplane service, Chudasama requested a sanction of Rs 120 crore for GUJSAIL, a Gujarat government PSU, which is the nodal agency for the development of aviation and related infrastructure in the state.

The letter from the Civil Avia-tion Department, Government of Gujarat, states, “To overcome the negative publicity by media…, we proposed that a new method may be conceptualised to make this first-ever seaplane services dedicated to the nation by Honorable Prime Minister succeed. For this, a proposal, workable under tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between State (Gujarat), MoCA and Airports Authority of India (AAI), is submitted.”

According to the letter, the tripartite MoU between state, MoCA and AAI to launch the seaplane services connecting Sabarmati to SoU was signed on October 19, 2020, days before the actual inauguration by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Rashtriya Ekta Divas on October 31, 2020.

Classifying it as a “request” under “priority matters”, the letter states, “The (Ahmedabad-Kevadia seaplane) service is non-operative since April 10, 2021. The state government’s Civil Aviation Department had done four consecutive meetings with M/s Spice Jet and a Viability Gap Funding (VGF) of Rs 50 lakh per month was also offered. However, the service could not take off. The seaplane services of Gujarat was the first seaplane service model in the country and many other seaplane routes are in the pipeline. Hence, this project requires to re-commence at the earliest.”

The letter adds, “This being one of the most prestigious projects dedicated to the nation, it faces various challenges. To make it successful and also to overcome negative publicity by media… we propose that it may be made as a part of pilot project to better understand modalities and overcome challenges… we request MoCA that under a clause of the tripartite MoU, provide capital cost for procurement of two seaplanes to GUJSAIL…, which will then acquire the seaplane directly from Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and operate seaplane services.”

The letter added that the OEM is “willing to deliver the first plane in January 2022 at an approximate cost of USD8 million per aircraft. This may be treated as a pilot project”. The Twin Otter DHC-300 aircraft, which was in service after launching the maiden flight with PM Modi, is manufactured by Canada-based De Havilland, backed by Viking Air, which also has a new Twin Otter 400 series.

The DHC-300 seaplane, which is registered as 8Q-ISC with Maldivian Aero, had flown back to its home country on April 9, a day after it last flew from the Sabarmati Riverfront to the Dyke 3 of Sardar Sarovar Dam near the Statue of Unity. While the suspension of services was decided, keeping in mind the pandemic and the inability to follow Covid-19 protocols during operation, SpiceJet later decided to let the aircraft stay back in its home country until further notice.

SpiceJet had wet-leased the seaplane from Maldivian Aero. Top officials of the airlines told this newspaper that the cost of running the service was “overwhelming” as the 19-seater seaplane has also flown with “just two passengers” on a couple of occasions.

The seaplane, which flew within Maldives between Male and Hulhule islands in May this year, is docked in Male since May 25. Since its inauguration, the seaplane services were suspended thrice — November 4 to 5, Nove-mber 28 to December 28, 2020, and February 2 to 16 this year.

Gujarat Director for Civil Aviation and CEO of GUJSAIL, Captain Ajay Chauhan, told The Indian Express, “The seaplane project is a Government of India initiative, and the state government of Gujarat has met all the work assigned to it in a time-bound manner. We have two functional water aerodromes in Ahmedabad and Kevadia, and now, we also have a maintenance facility in Ahmedabad. Spicejet informed that they would start services as soon as Covid-19 restrictions are eased.”

GUJSAIL oversees the operations of commercial flights on 15 of the 31 routes approved under four UDAN schemes, through MoU with the Government of India. On behalf of the state government, it procured a Bomba-rdier Challenger 650 in 2019 and also owns a 1999 Beechcraft Superking aircraft. So far, GUJSAIL has not launched its own aircraft operations for passenger flights.

While former minister Chudasama refused to elaborate on the proposal, newly appointed Cabinet Minister for Aviation, Purneshkumar Modi, told The Indian Express that his department would re-write to MoCA to expedite the revival of the service, which is the dream project of PM Modi.

“In the coming days, we are taking up the issue… We will first examine what has gone wrong in the arrangement. We are also writing to Scindia ji again to seek intervention and advice. A team of officers from the central ministry may also visit and give us suggestions as to how the project can be resumed,” Modi said.

An official of the Aviation Department said, “Gujarat can be a model for water aerodrome services in the country… If the pilot project between Ahmedabad and Kevadia takes off, it could certainly encourage more seaplane connectivity to coastline cities, which is more economical and viable. The challenges need to be met first…”

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