Why electric seaplanes will take-off with a great business model
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There is one development in sustainable aviation that keeps drawing my attention: electric seaplanes.
It’s probably because I have always learned not to keep anything electric close to the bathtub that this combination keeps surprising me. Fortunately, there is an increasing number of entrepreneurs that has been able to look past this childish experience and has started to develop fully electric seaplanes.
I had the opportunity to speak with one of these entrepreneurs, Eric Lithun, CEO and founder of Elfly Group. His company is designing and building a battery electric seaplane at their homebase Jarlsberg Airport near Oslo, Norway. Indeed, the country where all the main cities are located by a fjord. A perfect spot to start a seaplane business.
The beauty of seaplanes
The most important factor for operating a successful electric aviation business is a profitable business case. It is obvious that this applies to all new businesses, however, because of the limitations that electric aircraft have in the near future (especially range), finding the operational and economical sweet spot is even more important.
In the same issue I also mentioned that cities separated by water, but within a few hundred kilometers from each other, will be a good place to start. Such places are difficult to connect via roads or railways which makes flying a logical form of transportation. Even though Norway is not an island nation, the many fjords and mountains are a limiting factor for mass transportation on ground.
Fly to a city instead of an airport
Lithun has recently sold his IT-company and is now putting all his time and money into building zero-emission seaplanes. And since he grew up next to a seaplane base, it’s an investment that is close to home. Asking what the biggest benefit of seaplanes over regular aircraft is Lithun responds: “The beauty of seaplanes is the flexibility. Cities grow and change all the time and seaplane bases can be easily relocated based on these developments. Airports with a concrete runway are stuck to their permanent location, even when the development of the city lives at odds with the development of the airport.”
A seaplane base usually consists of a pier, similar to where boats would dock, that lays in the water and does not require large areas of infrastructure on the often scarcely available land. In the case of electric seaplanes, an electrical wire to charge the planes needs to be connected to the mainland.
These characteristics make it possible to fly in and out of city centers, instead of runways outside the city. Lithun believes that this is what the business value of seaplanes is. He states that “most people don’t live near an airport and don’t want to be at an airport. They live near city centers and often want to travel to another city center. And since most people in the world live near water, these centers are located close to water.”
The first route
The goal of Elfly is to operate their own aircraft after finishing production. A first route Lithun has in mind is Bergen – Stavanger, on the southwestern coast of Norway. Since around one million people travel between these cities on a yearly basis (which is a lot considering that both cities combined have 400.000 inhabitants) he calls it “the holy grail of transportion in Norway”. Looking at the image below you can see that it takes more than 4 hours to make the 200 kilometer trip, including several ferries.
That’s why conventional airlines also fly this route. But if you include travelling to the remote airports the total travel time is not much different. Starting and ending your flight in a city center, by using a seaplane, can reduce the travel time significantly. And by using electric propulsion the pollution of harmful emissions is also a lot less, thereby reducing the negative environmental impact on the city.
Using electric propulsion for these types of operations tackles the most important downside of battery powered aircraft: the limited range. The unique selling point of seaplanes has never been and will never will be their range. Whether running on fossil fuels or electricity, they are used on short routes. The route mentioned above is 160 kilometers in a straight line. Even considering operating reserves, this is well within the expected range for electric aircraft in the near future.
A downside of using water as a runway in Norway is that during the winter the water can be frozen. According to Lithun this shouldn’t stand in the way of a profitable business model: “Winter is always difficult in Norway, but seaplanes are a seasonal operation. The islands of Lofoten for example have around 800.000 tourists every year, but almost none of them visit during the winter”
Nevertheless, to enhance the operational flexibility, Elfly’s aircraft will be equipped with a retractable landing gear. This makes it possible to operate from a paved runway whenever landing on water is not an option. It makes it also possible to fly routes between seaplane bases and regular airports. For example flying from the mainland of Spain to Ibiza and Mallorca. And did you know that the busiest route of 2022 was between Seoul and the island of Jeju in South Korea? When an airline operating an amphibious aircraft can take a few percent of the 71.000 yearly flights, it could be a profitable business case.