Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Planes That Can Land Almost Anywhere... Even On Water

Siddharth Verma’s tryst with seaplanes almost ended as soon as it began. In 2010, Verma and his partners, CL Lakshmanan and SS Mann, won a deal to connect Port Blair with different regions of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Their firm — Maritime Energy Heli Air Services Pvt Ltd (MEHAIR) — was able to pip the competition and snag the contract managed by Pawan Hans on behalf of the Islands.

But the Australian aircraft leasing firm that agreed to supply a seaplane to MEHAIR backed out at the eleventh hour, citing the promoters’ lack of experience in running a similar service.
“Here was a real chance to do something revolutionary and completely unheard of in the Indian aviation space,” says Verma, who to this day believes that the bidders who lost out to MEHAIR had something to do with the Australian firm suddenly developing cold feet.

So despite having the paperwork to support the six-month pilot project, the three partners had almost decided to give up. Backing out would have also meant forfeiting the bid amount of ₹10 lakh.

“So, here was a guy who had never seen a seaplane ever, but now has a contract to offer seaplane services without knowing where the aircraft is going to come from,” says Verma. But then they wondered if it was possible to buy a seaplane instead of leasing one. “We gave ourselves 48 hours to see if we can make this happen,” he says. One thing led to another, and within days they were on the phone with a US-based aircraft agency.

A deal for the Cessna 408 amphibian aircraft was struck. However, few banks were willing to fund the deal. Verma had to put some of his properties on the line.

Once the plane landed in Mumbai, getting clearances was the next step. The Civil Aviation Ministry took a month to certify the aircraft as it was the first time they were dealing with an amphibian — a plane that can land on water or land. Finally, the much delayed services started in January 2011. “MEHAIR has been the most demanding chapter of my 22-year aviation career,” says Verma, who had worked with helicopter charter companies before.

The initial reception was poor because of high fares. MEHAIR was issued a termination notice after three-and-a-half months by Pawan Hans, along with a hefty fine of ₹90 lakh for the delay in starting operations. The tide began to change post monsoon that year. The government of Andaman & Nicobar wanted to directly charter the aircraft from MEHAIR and restart services at subsidised rates.

MEHAIR, which posted revenue of about ₹9 crore last year, has a fleet of three aircraft (of which two are seaplanes), and also offers services between Mumbai and Lonavala (Pawana Dam). Recently, MEHAIR signed an MoU with Gujarat to set up a maintenance, research and overhaul unit for seaplanes. The company’s goal is to operate about 25 aircraft in the next five years.

“Seaplanes prevent the need for costly airports and the long road to the beaches,” says Amber Dubey, Partner and India Head of Aerospace and Defence at global consultancy KPMG.

For fiscal 2015-16, MEHAIR is targeting revenue of ₹20-25 crore. “India can easily be one of the top three markets for seaplane service globally,” says Verma. “The sheer size of this country and the difficulty in accessing towns near water bodies means that amphibian planes will gain a lot of acceptance.”

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