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India’s first seaplane: The swanky, bumpy last mile

Stormy dark clouds piloted an inclement weather. Slogans of dissension rippled over the backwater from hundreds of fisherfolk who gathered in their boats with families braving the monsoon shower. The media scrutiny was intense. And like any other episode of moment this one too was accompanied by bouquets, brickbats and high drama. Nonetheless, it was another first for Kerala.

On the way

India’s first seaplane rose from Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam on June 2 this year. The applause was closely followed by the grumble of rain-laden clouds and protests by fishing communities who were understandably worried about the impact of the project on their livelihood. The clouds had their way – the seaplane which was to land at Punnamada in Allapuzha twenty minutes away landed back at Ashtamudi itself after take-off, a perfunctory inaugural flight. The fisherfolk didn’t – though it was reported in some sections of the media that the flight did not venture all the way into Alappuzha because of unrelenting protests there. Without being dismissive about their apprehensions – we will come back to it later – let’s take a look at what’s going for seaplanes in Kerala.

Ready for take off

Most tourists come to Kerala for the beach-and-backwater routine (Ayurveda massages are better by the backwaters or on the beach), thanks to the generous coastline of over 500 kilometres. The seaplane service will be tapping into this topographical boon – with the captivatingly picturesque Ashtamudi, Kumarakom, Punnamada, Bolgatty and Bekal being classified under ‘priority circuits’. Waterdromes (seaplanes’ airport) have been built on three locations – Kumarakom and Alappuzha on Lake Vembanad and Ashtamudi Lake near Kollam. ‘Priority circuit’ status is given to places which are old hands at attracting tourists; the service will be centred around here the first few months – a wait-and-watch period for half dozen more players expected to start operations by year-end. (Despite the state government announcing incentives for early birds – those commencing operations before January 31 this year – nobody came forward. The substantial risk-taking rewards included waiver of usage charges like check-in facilities, x-ray scanning, usage of visitors’ lounge etc for a period of one year. Finally it was Bangalore-based Wings Aviation which decided to come forward and well, take the plunge.)

Pilot Michael Fabry

The priority circuits are legendary in their lure – the calm and calming backwaters forming the perfect highway for meandering houseboats. Waterdromes have been built in these waters from where the seaplanes will operate. These waters are generally placid – not glassy-pacid, but ripply-placid, if you know what I mean – making it an ideal landing ground for seaplanes. Glassy water that reflects like a mirror is one of the most dangerous conditions a seaplane pilot can face, causing judgmental lapses during landing; rough water – wakes or waves even as high as 12 inches – can cause accidents or serious damage. Making use of this natural resource along the lines of famed bays all over the world – Australia, Canada, USA or Sri Lanka – is the natural next step forward. And this is where discontent sets in.

Yes, Kerala is a tiny strip of a state whose backwater stretches are no comparison to the unending bays of a Vancouver or Sydney. Protests are mounting from several quarters – and not just the Left-backed fishermens’ union – as the official launch date of the service approaches on August 1. Understandably environment activists have taken up cudgels and have begun putting forward incriminating evidence to show why the seaplane is an ‘ecologically illiterate’ move.

Protests: Justifiable fears

“This is not a viable transport for Kerala state due to economic as well as ecological reasons,” said noted conservationist MK Prasad. “The average depth of Vembanad Lake across most of Alappuzha district is less than three metres.” A seaplane that lands or takes off on this shallow water will generate waves that will affect marine life. Also irking activists as well the fisherfolk was the directive to limit fishing in one square kilometre area surrounding all waterdromes – which vastly reduced the area available to them to earn their livelihood. Though the service targets premium tourists primarily, operators expect the seaplanes to be used by regular and business commuters as well. However here the cost – Rs 6,000 per head – could be a dampener. The six-seater Cessna 206H amphibian aircraft will be initially operated from Alappuzha to Kochi – a route which Prasad rightly says can be ‘covered for a few hundred rupees if you travel by road or rail.’ An argument that doesn’t hold much water when you are targetting the high-end traveller and those seeking a unique experience.

Houseboats to flying boats

As the state government stands firmly committed to see the endeavour through to successful take-off (buying peace from the striking unions by promising them remedial action if marine life is found to be affected), those who were waiting in the wings have come forward with added gusto. However this enthusiasm has run into air pockets with some of the pilots who had been recruited from abroad left as they found it difficult to tackle Indian conditions. The tough DGCA directives regarding pilot experience is another blow. A spokesperson for MEHAIR – one of the operators planning to begin service post-monsoon – admitted that it was very difficult to get seaplane pilots at such short notices. “Even if you get captains from abroad, it will be tough to get DGCA clearance as the regulator will insist on high levels of experience and familiarity with local conditions.” Though to a limited degree, there is relief as most of the planes now come with a pilot who are entrusted with the task of training Indian co-pilots and equipping them eventually to fly on their own. Some of them are even sent to Canada to train on a wider variety of seaplanes.

Turbulence abounds. And the skies are not clear, yet. But what the pioneering effort has going for it is a pro active governmental backing it to the hilt. And the serene backwaters which form perfect waterdromes. Instead of rampant expansion at any cost – the current propsed number of waterdromes in the state is 20 – it should be more planned and phased-out. As there is little doubt about the adverse ecological impact of the project, the government should start cooperative aquafarms in the affected areas for fishing communities. Protests cannot go on forever, neither can a government successfully implement projects unless it benefits the local population, especially tourism-related ones. For tourism is as much about seeing new places and people as it is about getting new experiences.

Like the seaplane.

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