The islands, many of which are busy with tourists in the summer, depend on transportation links, mainly by ship or by hydrofoil, but these are tied to fixed infrastructures and may be interrupted by bad weather. Services have also been disrupted recently by a spate of mechanical breakdowns.
Enter the seaplane: presented as a highly flexible and economically viable means of taking small numbers of people to out-of-the-way places, capable of flying in almost any weather provided a sheltered stretch of water is available when waves are high.
Seaplanes were used for regular commerical flights in these skies, or waters, in the 1930s and during World War II the occupying Germans operated them out of the main harbour in Corfu on reconnaissance and anti-submarine missions.
Now, seaplanes are using the same stretch of water, but this time they are in sparkling white and dark blue and they carry holidaymakers, not bombs. Because of its long coastline, abundance of small islands and limited airfield infrastructure, Greece seems ideal for a seaplane service.
A Greek-Canadian company called AirSea Lines began flights from Corfu to the mainland northwestern town of Ioannina three weeks ago. It had begun testing the concept with a six-minute flight between Corfu and the island of Paxoi 11 months ago.
Catering for locals and tourists
The airline says its strategy is based on satisfying local demand that well-established airlines cannot meet.
"We're not aiming to compete against Olympic or Aegean," says company general manager Tassos Govas. "Our advantage is that we can access islands that lack airports, where local residents have problems with their transport and goods supply, and (a shortage of) health facilities."
Most of these islands rely on regular ferry connections to the mainland, but the link becomes difficult in winter when coastal shipping operators have to contend with bad weather and falling passsenger numbers.
"A ship with a capacity of 500 that carries 30 passengers in winter is a loss-making one," says Govas. "We, however, can help the situation with 19-person loads, which is our full capacity."
He also says: "If an island is left without supplies and the ship cannot go, we can make that flight. We can roughly carry 1.5-2 tonnes."
A fast, bumpy ride
Aegean Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis says that seaplane services to the eastern Greek archipelago will "likely" follow in the coming months. His ministry had planned to authorise flights to 10 additional island destinations this summer, he says, before unforeseen complications in the designation of plane landing sites cropped up.
But AirSea Lines pilot Daniel Englund, who flies the Corfu-Ioannina link, insists that his Canadian-built De Havilland Otter "can handle gale force winds, anything (short of) a hurricane".
He told AFP: "The wind is never a problem, it's actually better when it's windy. The more wind you have, the faster you can get airborne."
Flying at an altitude of up to 1830 metres, the Otter provides a fast, but noisy and frequently bumpy ride. Earplugs are provided to block out engine noise during the flight.
Englund says he has received favourable comments from passengers: "Most tourists go to Paxoi, and say they don't want to fly another way," he says. "They are amazed, because it's so fast and easy to get there. Lots of people from Europe are not used to seaplanes, so it's a nice experience."
For more information...
- Visit the AirSea Lines homepage to find out more.
- The Greek National Tourist organisation has lots of info on visiting the Greek islands.
- South Africans require a visa to visit Greece. Mail the Greek embassy for more info.
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