Seaplanes are in many ways the forgotten treasures of the aviation industry, some of them able to operate from both land and water. They provide tourists with stunning views of remote scenery and connect distant island communities in a fast, safe and environmentally sensitive mode of transport.
In a five year study on the environmental effects of seaplanes, the US Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for many of the waterways of the USA, concluded they had no negative environmental impact on air quality, water quality, soil quality, wildlife, fisheries or hydrology. They leave virtually no trace of their visit and are one of the few forms of transport allowed on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. They play a vital role in managing vulnerable ecological areas: the US Fish & Wildlife Service and National Parks System both rely on them for environmental and wildlife monitoring and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a fleet of seaplanes which are used extensively for biological work, including sea turtle and mammal surveys.
One of the largest users of seaplanes is the Maldives where in 2011 44 seaplanes recorded more than 100,000 operations, connecting 66 locations. Importantly, the use of seaplanes in this remote Indian Ocean territory can help connect both economically vital tourist destinations and the island communities spread over 192 islands in beautiful area of ocean covering 90,000 square kilometres. The nature of the atolls mean that suitable land for runways is hard to find, making seaplanes an ideal option.
“Seaplanes are uniquely placed as point to point connections and should certainly be marketed as such for new routes,” said a European Union commissioned study into their future. “They are very versatile and can cover very different type of missions that are peculiar to only this mode of transportation. They have access to more of the planet surface than landplanes, using unprepared landing strips, that makes them suitable for direct link between city centres (all major cities in Europe are situated near large enough bodies of water).”
In several cases, continues the report, they can offer a faster service and shorten travel times, avoiding the use of a combination of other means of transport.
"If we managed to get this kind of service serving many of our remote communities we'd make quite a substantial impact on green issues. Flying will still be part of our future we have to use it responsibly - this is the responsible way of flying" said Stewart Stevenson, Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change for the Scottish Government.