Will Croatia Have Seaplanes in 2018? Official Statement from Airways Europe

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With the demise of European Coastal Airlines (ECA) and lots of rumours and half announcements, will seaplanes be seen in 2018 in the coastal towns, cities and islands of Croatia? An official statement on January 13, 2018, from one company ready and in position to begin operations – Airways Europe. 

It was history in the making, a game changer for island hopping tourism in Croatia.

And it still can be.

About 80 years after seaplanes graced the harbours of several towns and cities in the1930s (and connecting to Prague), a European Coastal Airlines Twin Otter touched down in the Adriatic near Jelsa on Hvar on August 27, 2014, before taxiing in to the pretty harbour, completing a 15-minute flight from the Resnik seaport near Split Airport, the start of the first scheduled commercial seaplane service in modern aviation history. 

As an island boy, I was especially excited. Sensible and time-saving commuting was now possible, and two highlights from those heady days stick out in my memory. The first was being able to fly from Munich airport and arrive at my front door in Jelsa in just 3.5 hours, and the second showcased the seaplane potential for businesses in Croatia. A hotel client in Istria offered me some work but wanted to meet and show me the facilities. The prospect of taking a car on the ferry to Split and then the long drive north filled me with dread, but the seaplane option changed the story completely. A morning flight to Jelsa to Resnik (where I also had a meeting), then an idyllic one hour flying low over the entire coast from Split to Pula, before five hours with the client and then flying back the same route and in the bar in Jelsa for a cocktail at 19:00. Total travel and work time – 10 hours, of which 5 were spent on site. From Jelsa to Pula and back! Read about it here

What could (and still can be) a wonderful thing for Croatian tourism did not last long. Whatever one’s opinions about Captain Klaus Dieter Martin, CEO of ECA, he deserves huge credit for his vision and determination to make the seaplane concept a reality. I don’t think I am alone in concluding, however, that his business methods and style were not quite suited to the Croatian reality, and if I had to pick a case study in how NOT to do business in the region, ECA would certainly be the one. Two years later, ECA’s planes were grounded by the Civil Aviation Authority for alleged safety issues, issues which are part of an ongoing legal case by ECA against the CAA. The seaplane company could not recover from lost revenue in peak season which was estimated to be in seven figures in euro. 

The thing is, seaplanes in Croatia are a very good idea, if the right operator, with appropriate regional experience and a proper business plan, can enter the fray. 

Such a company is ready to do so, but only if the conditions, legal safeguards and transparent official support are there. 

Is it time for Seaplanes in Croatia 2.0?

It took ECA 14 years to get things in place for that inaugural flight to Jelsa in 2014. A LOT of mistakes were made, a LOT of hurdles overcome, and a LOT of legal issues and precedent were dealt with. The concept of a seaplane company coming in to operate in 2018 would be much easier to realise… if the political will was there to make it happen. 

Depending on who you speak to, ECA failed because of Croatian bureaucracy. Or because of the ECA management approach in Croatia. Or a combination of the two. Meanwhile in Montenegro… 

Airways Montenegro, part of the Riana Group, has successfully been running a helicopter, light aircraft and private jet business. With local knowledge and a successful track record in Montenegro, the company looks well placed to expand into the Croatian market. They tried in 2017, with plans to open a helicopter transfer and scenic flight business based on Brac, but our old friend, Croatian Bureaucracy, got in the way of that one.

They are also interested in a seaplane operation in Croatia and have been in discussions with ECA over assets, as I understand. They have the capacity and the will to begin operations this season, but rather than jumping in, they are looking for some basic guarantees and transparency from officials that their operation will be welcomed and supported in terms of legal guarantees, AOC (Air Operator’s Certificate) and concessions. There have been lots of stories in the media about their plans, with some media reporting that they will be based in Rijeka, and others that they will start flights in April (information that we also reported from a good source). So what is the real story? We are already in January and there have been no firm announcements.

I decided to contact Riana Group directly and ask them for some firm information. They replied very quickly – here is the reply in full:

Hi Paul,

As per our conversation, this is the statement on behalf of Airways Europe:

“We are currently waiting to see how the Croatian authorities deal with the outstanding ECA issues. Without a formal conclusion to ECA’s current position, it is impossible for any operator to enter the market due to the uncertainty that exists. The authorities need to finalize their position in respect to bankruptcy proceedings, concessions, AOC approvals and other business positions before we are prepared to move forward. We are waiting and observing with interest to ensure the environment is conducive to a successful operation.”

When ECA tried to enter the seaplane market, things were very different in Croatia. There was no precedent, and things were being done for the first time. Things have now changed, and many of the obstacles which ECA encountered no longer exist, as the ECA precedent has solved many issues. 

The question is whether or not the Croatian authorities recognise and value the contribution a successful seaplane company can make to the country’s tourism, and how much they are prepared to help make it a reality. If the government is willing to work with a seaplane operator to help with concessions, the AOC and other legal guarantees, things could be in place quite quickly – possibly even for this season. 

Some 3.5 years ago, I wrote an article called Croatia and Greece: A Tale of Two Nikki Beach Resorts. Back in July, 2014, I took a look at two planned Nikki Beach resorts, one in Greece and one on the island of Hvar. The initial purchases took place at roughly the same time, 2007 and 2008, and while the Greek luxury resort opened on time on August 1, 2014, its Croatian equivalent still had not solved land ownership issues. and in the 3.5 years since I wrote the article, ownership of the Croatian Nikki Beach resort is still not resolved. 

Nikki Beach Resorts in Greece, Helicopter and plane companies in Montenegro. Is it time to realise and do something about the fact that Croatia is missing out on huge tourism revenues due to bureaucracy, where similar countries are moving forward? If Croatia wants seaplanes, here is a perfect opportunity for the government to work on a solution to the problem. 

There is another angle to this which goes far beyond tourism, an angle I alluded to in my Jelsa – Pula day trip above. The islands of Croatia are slowly dying, with more and more people heading for the mainland and foreign climes. Croatia needs all the help it can get to sustain and increase its island populations. In the age of the digital nomad and home-based consultant, connectivity is key. Croatian islands are fantastic places to live on so many levels, and their beauty enchants many a foreigner, some of whom wonder about full-time living there. The ability to quickly connect with the rest of the world is a vital consideration, and while ECA operated, Jelsa was the preferred base of one international aid worker, for example. She was not alone, and she was happy to combine the wonderful Dalmatian island lifestyle with the security that she could be anywhere in the world at short notice. 

Seaplanes for tourism, and seaplanes for strengthening island communities, there are so many positives. Ultimately the answer as to whether there will be seaplanes in Croatia in 2018 rests with the government and local authorities. If they want them, they know who to call and what to do.   


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