Updated: February 24, 2021 12:59:32 pm
The Ahmedabad-Kevadia seaplane returned from the Maldives on Tuesday (February 16) after a two-week maintenance tour at its home country. This was the third major suspension since its launch on October 31, 2020.
Why does the aircraft fly to Maldives?
The seaplane has been suspended thrice; November 4-5 and November 28-December 28 last year, and earlier this month from February 2 to 16 — and flown to Male on two occasions in December and February.
An official of SpiceJet said a thorough maintenance check is part of the operation manual of the seaplane, which is a Twin Otter-300 aircraft. “The plane will keep going back to the Maldives — its home country — every time it completes 124 flying hours. This is because the infrastructure to carry out the maintenance is not available in India. Moreover, the maintenance is not just about physical servicing but requires certification at various levels. The flight is registered in the Maldives and the aviation bodies there need to check the flight and certify that it is fit for flying. It is the property of that country,” the official said.
The executive added that the distance of close to 1,130 nautical miles between Ahmedabad and Male means that ferrying the aircraft for maintenance is an added expenditure for SpiceJet, which has a wet-lease with Maldivian Aero.
“It takes about 48 hours, and we have to set up temporary and emergency facilities every 250 nautical miles, from Ahmedabad to Mumbai to Goa to Cochin and finally to Male,” the official said, adding that it is an expensive affair.
Why is the infrastructure unavailable in India?
India does not have a maintenance facility for a seaplane. The Twin Otter 300 series rests on two floats. It can land and take off solely on the water as it has no wheels, making it impossible to land on regular runways.
“The maintenance facilities are being built and we are narrowing down on a location in the Sabarmati Riverfront. An aircraft maintenance facility requires multiple levels of certifications. Even if we make these maintenance facilities, we do not have agencies that can certify this aircraft in India. The Ministry of Civil Aviation has travelled to the Maldives to understand how the operations run because that country has the biggest seaplane operation in the world, with more than 100 planes flying every day. It is also the nearest to India,” said the executive.
Canada and Europe also run seaplane operations. According to the official, as per the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) document, a Certificate of Airworthiness is mandatory and it is the Maldivian agencies that are authorised to clear the seaplane as “fit for flying”.
What is the kind of maintenance that the seaplane needs?
A maintenance schedule is mandatory for approximately every 124 hours that the seaplane flies. “Every day, before we shut down the engine of the aircraft, we do minor maintenance at the Ahmedabad terminal. It is a complex aircraft. Twin Otters has an engine on the right and on the left. The left engine is put into 60 per cent capacity every day to check if it is properly functioning. At this time, one has to hold the aircraft because it can turn on either of the two sides. For that, we need a U-shaped jetty, where the aircraft can slide in between the space and be held from both sides during the maintenance. This jetty is needed for everyday maintenance. But we also need a dry dock. Since this aircraft does not have wheels and stands on two floats, imagine if the floats have a puncture. The seaplane will immediately sink. We need a dry dock to immediately pull the aircraft up and put it on a concrete surface for checking. This is for the main maintenance schedule. Currently, this dry dock is available only in the Maldives,” the official said.
The hangar being constructed in Ahmedabad will also have a dry dock under shade to protect it during maintenance. “The hangar is currently under consideration at the Sabarmati Riverfront but clearances are awaited,” said the official.
Until when will the seaplane service remain irregular?
The executive said, “There is only one company in the world that manufactures the Twin Otter 300 seaplane — Canada-based De Havilland, which has currently suspended the manufacturing of new aircraft due to the pandemic. Once the production begins and new aircraft are available, they will be procured. It will not only increase the frequency of the service between the two destinations but also allow the service to continue uninterrupted as other seaplanes will be available even if one has to go into maintenance.”
The airline is also considering buying a Twin Otter 400 F series that will soon be launched. “At the moment, the availability of the aircraft is an issue and it is definitely causing a break in the consistency of the service. But one must appreciate that the service was launched in the middle of a pandemic and we have gone out of our way to introduce a new service in the country. We are launching the Andaman seaplane operations soon, and it will make the services more popular,” said the airline official.
How sustainable is the business model?
Experts say the seaplane is an expensive aircraft to maintain. While India has decided to model its services mainly on the Maldives, the difference is the size of the operations. The executive said, “The Maldivian model is most successful because, for one single flight, people pay $250, a return fare could go up to $700. We are charging $50-100 in Kevadia. Under the Civil Aviation Ministry’s UDAN scheme, the seats are available for about Rs 1,500. We get 18 seats under UDAN Regional Connectivity Scheme — which means nine seats per flight (18 total) on the first return journey can be sold at a discounted rate as the government pays for it as per the policy. But, if the seats are not sold, we do not get paid. There have been days when we have flown with only three passengers.”
The aviation company adds that it has requested the government of Gujarat to change the agreement to UDAN Viability Gap Funding (VGF) scheme, under which the financial support from the government will help the company ease the losses.
The official said, “The VGF model would be beneficial in an initial couple of years. The cost of operations is huge. Also, this is a Non Scheduled Operation permit, which is like a helicopter service operation. One has to wait until the flight is full. But people in India are used to scheduled operations, so they know that there is a 9.30 am flight from Ahmedabad to Kevadia and do not understand why the company does not specify the time at the time of booking. But other than a few disruptions, our on-time flight record is very good.”
In December, there were some disruptions because of unfavourable weather and low visibility for which the company has sought for a special Visual Flight Rules (VFR).
Would an amphibious aircraft be a better option?
While there is a view among government officials that an amphibious aircraft would have been better, the airline executive said that these aircraft have wheels that take up space of “at least four seats”.
The official said, “It is about the weight of the flight that makes the capacity lower — you can either carry passengers or wheels or floats. We decided that the maintenance of an only-float seaplane is easier than an amphibious. The amphibious commercial operation is not viable in terms of the cost of regular maintenance and also the number of passengers. To maintain the wheels which are always under the water, the cost goes high due to the corrosion because of the water. The number of seats has to be reduced in case of the amphibious aircraft to only five to six passengers”.
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