Seaplane flights offer visitors to island destinations in the Philippines a solution to the shortage of land-based regional airports and long ferry journeys, according to the company which operates the country’s only scheduled seaplane service from the capital, Manila.
The company runs three flights a day from its headquarters at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Current scheduled destinations are the popular resort destinations of Boracay (70-minute flight from Manila), Puerto Galera (40 minutes) and Palawan (up to 100 minutes).
Airtrav began scheduled services in 2020. It started as a charter operator and continues to offer this service today. “We can arrange charter flights to any destination in the Philippines, since we can land directly next to the islands,” Ngui says.
The country is comprised of more than 7,000 islands but there are only eight designated international airports, 40 principal airports, which handle domestic commercial flights, and a further 40 community air strips, few of which handle scheduled flights.
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Ngui believes that extending seaplane routes would attract more island-hopping tourists, who often find commercial flight schedules inconvenient.
Currently, the Philippines has insufficient direct connections even between certain neighbouring islands and provinces, resulting in time-wasting transit through major hubs, such as Manila and Cebu, or complicated road and sea trips.
Since seaplanes are still something of a novelty in most parts of the country, local governments are sometimes initially reluctant to approve new locations, fearing that the plane might damage coral reefs or disturb marine life.
Ngui says the company often faces these misconceptions: “We point out that as a seaplane floats on the water, it makes no more disturbance than a boat and we always work with the local government to minimise disruption.”
Airtrav also researches the exact maritime locations carefully. Protected bays, coves and lagoons offer smoother landing spots than open water.
The company has one Cessna Grand Caravan EX Amphibian, a single-engine airplane that seats eight passengers, with two crew.
The Cessna was purchased as new in 2018 and its pilots have been trained overseas. The plane undergoes regular maintenance programmes and pre-flight checks are carried out to prioritise safety.
Additions to the fleet would allow new destinations to be added. “Going forward, we're looking at the Visayan islands, such as Cebu, and Mindanao. There are more opportunities around that area because there are so many islands to explore, but that’s very hard to do flying from north to south.”
The aircraft’s range and need to refuel on longer journeys might therefore mean the establishment of a second operational hub south of Manila.
A guide price for a one-way ticket from Manila to Boracay is US$350, while a one-hour seaplane charter starts at US$1,900.
Most passengers choose Airtrav services, Ngui believes, to save considerable time and effort. Price is not the determining factor, especially for foreign tourists who want to maximise the number of destinations within a limited schedule.
Seaplane travel can cut journey times to little more than an hour in some instances, compared with the best part of a day, avoiding multiple transfers using commercial flights, ferries and overland connections.
Airtrav is already working with high-end leisure resorts in its three serviced destinations since, for now, the bulk of Airtrav’s passengers are leisure tourists. However, the company is also keen to work with destination management companies handling premium incentive groups in the MICE sector.
Ngui says her company is still building brand awareness among both consumers and within the travel industry, but the potential is huge.
“We love working with tourist groups to plan their adventure. We also want to work with travel industry partners to develop the seaplane sector across the country.”