Global seaplane industry outlines plan for growth at FOSAA conference in Venice

Jekta amphibian electric plane

A large cross-section of the global amphibious aircraft community converged in Venice on March 20, 2024, to attend a brand new conference, the Future Opportunities for Seaplanes and Amphibious Aviation (FOSAA), dedicated to this segment of the industry. 

Once the dominant form of commercial air travel, seaplanes fell out of favor in the years after the Second World War. Following the advent of the jet era and unable to compete with larger and more cost-efficient airliners, amphibious aviation was relegated to small niches, such as firefighting and tourist flights.  

However, after decades on the fringes, amphibious aviation is currently experiencing a renaissance of sorts. A new generation of entrepreneurs is determined to reclaim the more central role seaplanes once played in the industry. 

But renewed interest in this form of aviation is not only driven by nostalgia. First, there are the potential opportunities afforded by the fact that most of the world’s population lives near water. There are also cost-reducing, efficiency-enhancing advances in areas such as composite materials, electric propulsion and aerodynamics prompting many in the industry to look at amphibious aviation with fresh eyes. 

AeroTime attended the inaugural one-day conference in Venice to take the pulse of the modern seaplane industry and meet with some of the professionals engaged in this new era of amphibious aviation. 

One element that stood out is the degree to which new seaplane developers have embraced sustainability as a core tenet. It is safe to say that any potential future development of the seaplane industry is inextricably linked to the success of new, cleaner forms of propulsion that minimize or eliminate carbon emissions. It is also significant that two of the frontrunners in the quest to bring seaplanes back into the mainstream are both startups working on native electric propulsion designs. 

The vibrant seaplane startup scene 

Norwegian startup Elfly and Jekta, which is based in Payerne, Switzerland, are both developing fully electric flying boats for nine and 19 passengers, respectively.  

However, unlike other electric aviation startups that aim to replace traditional land-based regional aircraft, Elfly and Jekta appear unfazed by the short range offered by current battery technology. Many of today’s seaplane operations involve short distances, such as connecting islands or coastal communities that are not too far apart, so even if Elfly and Jekta choose to focus on the existing replacement market, the opportunity looks rather sizable. 

But perhaps the most promising market would be that created from scratch. As in other segments of the air travel market, the lower operational costs afforded by electric propulsion are expected to make new use cases economically viable.  

Another takeaway from the conference was the sense of community and shared purpose among the crop of seaplane proponents. Talking on stage, George Alafinov, Founder of Jekta, and Eric Lithun, his counterpart at Elfly, agreed on the need to collaborate to convince the broader aviation community and the public of the advantages of modern amphibious aviation. The logic being that if the business case for seaplanes can be proven, there will be a market for everyone. 

Another startup present in Venice and exploring the electric propulsion option, although in its hybrid-electric form, is Tidal Flight, based in Hampton Roads, Virginia, United States.  

Two other companies, Mallard Enterprises from Maine and British developer Ocean Aircraft, are opting for conventionally powered, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)-capable designs, although with the capacity to be converted to other propulsion technologies in the future. In these cases, an optimized, composites-based design aims not only to reduce weight and costs, but also expand the range of weather and sea conditions that seaplanes can operate in. 

Traditionally, seaplanes have had to contend with a major handicap: their sensitivity to sea conditions. Even a relatively small swell can prevent seaplanes from operating, greatly impacting their dispatch reliability. 

Tackling this issue has been the focus of seaplane developers such as Japan’s ShinMaywa, which has fitted its large US-2 search and rescue flying boat with a sophisticated propulsion system allowing it to take advantage of the motion of waves to take off in rough seas, or the disruptive foil-based ground-in-wing Seaglider vehicle being developed by Regent. 

Although the seaplane industry is finding answers to these technical challenges, it is ultimately the availability of money to bring all these projects to fruition that will determine the fate of this new generation of seaplanes. 

Where is the money? 

One of the conference panels, with the presence of aviation finance and leasing professionals, raised several questions, such as whether amphibious aviation is large enough for the leasing companies and the broader aviation finance community to pay notice. 

It is sometimes a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum. The seaplane industry needs money to produce at scale. However, to fund this, financiers will need to look at aspects such as relative standardization of the assets, their liquidity and their residual value, for which there is currently no clear answer.  

Governments could be another potential source of funding to relaunch amphibious aviation. This applies not just to the sort of public service obligation routes in remote areas of Western Canada and Scandinavia.  

In fact, there was some debate during one of the conference sessions after one of the panelists suggested that, with the current aircraft technology, the market could not support tickets below the $500 per trip. But seaplanes also have obvious military and civil protection applications. 

In Italy, a startup called 19-01 is working on a new generation firefighting aircraft, called WF-X, complete with fly-by-wire technology, a communications and command system for enhanced real time coordination with other ground and air assets, and a load release system designed to hit on target with total accuracy.  

The aircraft also allows for quick reconfiguration for different missions, including sea rescue and cargo transport. While conventionally powered in principle, its proponents highlight the fact that, through its enhanced firefighting capabilities, the WF-X is a rather efficient emissions-prevention machine. 

Growth markets: looking East 

Also worth noting is that Asia is emerging as a key market for the ongoing seaplane revival. It is not just that the Maldives currently operates one of the largest commercial seaplane fleets in the world, but also because some of the latest orders for new generation seaplanes come from the region.  

India is emerging as a market of note, with a 50-strong order for Jekta seaplanes placed in July 2023 by Maritime Energy Heli Air Services (MEHAIR), a startup that aims to bring sustainable aviation to India, as well as a letter of intent (LOI) from Goa-based, Skylinks Aviation for four Mallard Entreprises ME-1A amphibious aircraft. The latter was announced on March 20, 2024, during the FOSAA conference in Venice.  

Other countries in the region, such as Indonesia, or the Philippines seem to offer a particularly well-suited geography for the development of amphibious aviation and could well follow suit. 

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