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Mon 4 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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High times

Flights provider Seawings has enabled tourists to view Dubai's leading landmarks from 1500 feet.

High times
High times
SCENIC ROUTE: ‘Seawings’ tours take in several landmarks across Dubai, including seven-star hotel Burj Al Arab.
High times
ON BOARD: Andrew Stephen is overseeing ‘Seawings’ growth.
High times
TOUCH DOWN: ‘All Seawings’ tours start and finish in the sea.

Flights provider Seawings has enabled tourists to view Dubai's leading landmarks from 1,500 feet.

It was while flying past the Burj Al Arab that Andrew Stephen realised his future lay in the Middle East. The Seawings executive was still considering whether to join the seaplane tours operator before boarding one of its flights last year.

There are lots of start-up costs in any airline including ours, meaning it’s difficult to make money straight away.

But after seeing Dubai's famous sail-shaped hotel, Stephen needed little persuading to leave commercial aviation for a smaller operation.

I came here in October to have a look around before joining the company and it was fascinating to see all the developments across Dubai from the air," Stephen says. "I wanted to go on a flight and experience it for myself, and it was terrific.

Having joined Seawings as general manager in late December, Stephen's main responsibility is to develop the start-up venture. The company's operation involves one Cessna 208 Caravan seaplane for sight-seeing tours across Dubai.

Each flight travels at 1500 ft, passing several landmarks, including the Burj Al Arab, 'The World', Dubai Marina and Burj Dubai.

According to Stephen, Seawings offers up to eight flights a day, depending on demand and weather conditions. It also provides three tours, covering different routes and sights across the emirate. The company is still in its infancy, having launched last August. But despite its recent inception, Stephen is determined to expand.

This year, he expects Seawings to have three Cessna 208s in operation and more tour packages around Dubai. He is also keen to roll-out the operation to other emirates in the future, although such plans are a long way off. "As we expand, we will be looking at offering different places within the region, such as Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah.

In recent weeks, Stephen has held talks with management of an unnamed hotel in RAK about flying guests between Dubai and the northern emirate. Whether the discussions lead to a partnership remains to be seen, but Stephen is confident of tapping into new markets within the region.

He also believes offering ‘air taxis' to residents living on offshore sites, such as the Palm Jumeirah and World development, is another potential revenue stream.

"There are lots of residents on offshore developments who may want to go quickly from their home to a point on the creek, for example. I'm experiencing the Dubai traffic and know how difficult that can be, so an aeroplane that leaves virtually from your front door, flies to where you want to go and avoids all the traffic is an attractive proposition."

Another idea under consideration is night flights, although more advanced aircraft is needed to achieve this goal. Visibility is the main obstacle, with pilots unable to see the landing point after day light hours. Nevertheless, management hopes to overcome this problem by introducing newer models, with the company expected to add two more planes in the coming years.

While it's unlikely such plans will be carried out this year, the company's existing services are keeping Seawings' management busy enough.

Indeed, the tour packages have proved popular, with many tourists keen to see Dubai from a different vantage point as Stephen puts it. "When you see these offshore constructions from the air you get a different perspective of how things look," he says. "It's an experience and one of those things you should do at least once in your life.

Despite the company's size, Stephen insists Seawings is dogged by the same issues affecting commercial carriers. Operational overheads are high, with oil costing some US$100 barrel, while acquiring new aircraft is always expensive.

The upshot is Seawings operates on a loss, although management is confident of generating profits soon.

The same principles apply, so there are lots of start-up costs in any airline including ours, meaning it's difficult to make money straight away," Stephen says. "But we have a robust business plan that sees us becoming profitable quickly.

It's unclear when Seawings will start posting profits. But Stephen believes the company's status as Dubai's only seaplane tour provider will help.

Aside from operators offering helicopter rides across the emirate, Seawings has no competitors. Unsurprisingly, Stephen reckons sea plane tours provide a more "unique" experience than helicopters. Unlike choppers, Seawings' flights take off from and land in the sea, while the ride itself is smoother. Moreover, all passengers are seated next to windows - a feature that cannot be guaranteed on helicopters.
According to Stephen, having few competitors is beneficial for him and the Seawings team, although the British director insists industry rivals are good for business. While working for established carriers United Airlines and Virgin in particular, Stephen and his colleagues were often spurred on by competitors.

When Stephen joined Virgin, it was a small operation with only two aeroplanes. But management's determination to develop the airline has seen it grow into a leading carrier with cutting-edge technology.

When you see these offshore constructions from the air you get a different perspective. It’s one of those things you should do once in you life.

"We were the first aeroplane in the world to have seat back TVs in economy, so those sorts of things raise the bar and improve the product for everybody, with the consumer getting a better deal," Stephen says. "It's always nice to have competition and, as we are the first one's here, if someone replicates our model we know we have done something right.

Whether competitors enter the market in the coming years is unclear. But Stephen is unconcerned about potential rivals, with Seawings' development from start-up to fully-fledged business the aim.

Indeed, the company was established in early 2007 as a subsidiary of Jet-Ops FZE, a flights provider that holds the UAE Air Operators Certificate. Founder Stuart Wheeler spotted a niche in the market, with no seaplane service providers operating from Dubai before Seawings' launch.

To finance the operation, Wheeler invested his own and shareholders' capital in the business. His first priority after securing backers was to find a base for the company. The search led to Jebel Ali Golf Resort's costal location on the outskirts of Dubai, which was considered the perfect spot.

With the financing and location in place, attention turned to developing a dock for the seaplane's takeoffs and landings. The site, which includes a small walkway for passenger boarding, was built during last year's opening half, giving Wheeler and his management team an ideal base for the company's operation.

During that period, the directors also acquired a Cessna 208 to move one step closer to the company's launch. Elsewhere, Seawings' management needed to secure licenses and certificates, allowing the company to operate seaplane tours.

It was a drawn out affair that involved the same procedures and checks required of any commercial airline, according to Stephen. "It's long and necessarily laborious because everybody has to make sure everything is in place," he says.

It's frustrating, but also very important when you are carrying people in an aviation environment to make sure all the systems, procedures and safeguards are in place.

Like commercial airlines, Stephen and his team operate tight security to ensure passenger safety. Anyone booked on a Seawings tour has to produce their passport and undergo security checks before boarding the plane.

"When we fly, we have a full security procedure similar to what you would have at a large, international airport," Stephen says. "We make sure you are not carrying prohibitive items. Doing this is more than necessary, but we want to make sure we are operating to the highest level." Finding pilots has also been a challenge, with demand across the industry for experienced fliers outstripping supply.

But the company managed to entice pilots from New Zealand, Australia and Canada prior to its launch. Each has thousands of hours float plane experience, having worked in the sector for several years respectively.

Stephen admits securing more pilots is crucial to the company's expansion. Training people from scratch is a possibility, with inexperienced fliers learning alongside skilled pilots in a two-man plane. But it's unlikely the company will introduce a training programme soon.

"This is a single pilot operation, although a twin plane would be with two pilots, giving us the opportunity to bring in younger, less experienced guys on the right hand seat and move them through like conventional airlines do," Stephen says. "But right now we need guys with a number of hours, so for a single pilot operation we wouldn't have younger fliers.

Increasing the fleet, finding new pilots and introducing additional tours are the main objectives, but Stephen is also determined to find his feet. Since moving to Dubai late last year, the British executive has had some eight weeks to settle in.

Stephen admits he is still learning but believes joining Seawings was the right move. "I'm still pretty new but the principles are the same," he adds. "You have an aeroplane and some seats to fill. You want to sell them at the maximum possible yield and you want a safe and secure operation.

"Aviation is a small business and I knew the management before coming here. I wanted to see through the company's expansion following its inception and that's what I'm determined to do.

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