Turning runways into water: The case for amphibious aviation in Venice


In Venice with a journey to make? At least some of it will be on a boat. Construction work requires a crane, that’s on a boat. Need to call 911? The carabinieri are coming on you guessed it. The population of the floating city relies on watercraft for virtually everything. It is where water replaces the road. There are even ice cream boats.

Venice is pretty unique in its geography, but the metropolis is living proof humans have lived and thrived on the water for as long as anyone can remember. In fact, it is estimated well over two billion people live in what is called the near-coastal zone. Which is defined as all land within 100km of the coast at an elevation of up to 100 metres.

The potential to serve those people is a shared factor in the vision of every startup vying for a share of an eagerly anticipated electric seaplane market. More than 10 amphibious aircraft OEMs were in Venice this week, alongside operators, financiers and stakeholders from across aviation to discuss the nascent sector. Brought together by the inaugural Future Opportunities for Seaplanes & Amphibious Aviation conference put together by Quaynote Communications and Arena Group.

So what is keeping seaplane and amphibious aircraft OEMs awake at night? “Money,” said George Alafinov, founder and CEO of Jekta, a startup developing a regional amphibious aircraft it calls the PHA-ZE 100“We came out of stealth in November 2022, and I went to see a VC [venture capital] company, a very big investment fund. They asked me two questions. The first one was: ‘We are looking into eVTOLs, how is your aircraft different?’ That was a real question. 

“The second question was: ‘Why are you the only one?’ Thankfully we are not the only one, but it does show how difficult it is to revive this market by yourself. I am personally very happy there are more and more players in this market. Yes, we are competitors, but this market is actually very, very big. We can make a push together for the revival.”

Eric Lithun, CEO and founder of Norwegian seaplane developer Elfly, was in 100% agreement. Competition has long been an important part of the spirit of aviation, he said.

“Also, as an investor, and I am one myself, if you are presented with an idea and it is the only one out there it is probably the wrong idea. Or it could be too far ahead of its time. Good ideas have failed because they came to the market too early and other players came in with the second-mover advantage.”

Lithun thinks a lot of good money has been thrown at bad projects. “This includes investors seeming to not know anything about pure physics like gravity. I am a fixed-wing pilot myself and I think if you want to go a distance you need a fixed-wing. That is why I ended up with a seaplane project. I think the access to city centres and the ability to go from sea-to-sea is brilliant.”

Working out where the money is going to come from is challenge for every startup at some point. It is also the case for operators wanting in on the market. Wouter du Preez, co-founder at Greenstar Aviation Partners said: “We are living in a very exciting space where innovation, technology and sustainability is driving a big future for us.

“When thinking about seaplanes what is obvious to the market, to the operators and also the financiers is that there are a variety of use cases to finance. It is not just the commercial side and the existing routes. There are even new untapped markets that don’t exist today. But what is obvious as well is we have technology as an enabler even though it is hard to finance at this early stage, and it is these innovators on the technology side that help to push the market forward.”

Posed the question is there a big enough financing sub-sector in seaplanes? Aldo Giovannitti, CEO of Aernovum Aircraft Finance said: “Capital is the backbone of everything, every sector of aviation. Below the top layer of wide and narrow bodies where most of the capital is attracted, you have the regional segment of 100 seater or less. Then below that you have a more fragmented space, here thinking about aircraft at 19 seats or less. 

“Within this fragmentation, where seaplanes sit, you have more difficulty to source capital. But in there, because there is a lack of investment in this space, I think there is an opportunity there to consolidate the fragmentation and grow the segment.”

Sylvain Gloux, senior director, Origination at Nord L/B says traditionally, asset financiers in aviation have focused on the mainstream commercial segment, which is the biggest in terms of volume. Commercial aircraft like ATRs and A320s attract capital because they are easy to move, liquid assets with predicable cash flow and value. “These are all attributes that should be applicable to smaller aircraft such as seaplanes amphibious applications,” he said, noting however that seaplanes are generally seen as a niche and higher risk asset class due to the nature and profile of their operators. Nevertheless, these aircraft tend to be contracted to stronger credits and play an essential role in areas where they operate. He believes there is already a shift taking place in the investment and banking community towards products such as seaplane thanks to the growing interest for transition or sustainability investments.

Seaplanes and flying boats are all proven technologies. The existence of a market operated by an ageing fleet is another key piece of the shared vision of OEMs in this space. So what lessons can be learnt from existing operations?

“Start small, but keep the vision that this can cover quite a large element at the end of the day,” said Dennis Keller, CEO, Seaplane Asia. Once a regulatory framework and a concept of operations is in the process of being defined with a regulator, Keller’s experience is that other governments, especially those with a similar geography, will show interest. The firm operates services in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia using Cessna 208 amphibians.

The first seaplane services in Italy launched in 1926 with flights operating between Turin and Trieste, including half hour stopovers in Pavia and Venice. The history of the city’s connection with the water was some thing touched on by keynote speaker Max Pinucci.

“Venezia is the perfect location for the first conference of this kind, because this is where it started. Venezia had the first school and the first department for seaplanes in Italy,” said the founder of design firm MBVision.

“But why does seaplane aviation make sense? It is because we are covered by 71% water. We also have 1 million miles of coastline, 4.2 million square kilometres of lakes and 3 million miles of rivers. We can use that water.”