In possibly the boldest transport announcement of the year, entrepreneur Steven Cheung today announced plans for a new on-demand airline with 30 seaplanes, an R&D centre to create a new electric aircraft engine, and a new pilot training centre in the Greater Bay Area.
Calling Seaplane Hong Kong the “real Greater Bay Airlines”, CEO and founder Cheung says he’s raised HK$100 million for the airline concept, which he hopes to have up and running this year. The airline plans to start work on necessary approvals for an aerial sightseeing service this month, with plans to acquire two 19-passenger Sea Otter seaplanes.
By 2025, Cheung hopes to have 30 planes plying Victoria Harbour and the Greater Bay Area.
The former HK Express pilot and politician says Seaplane Hong Kong won’t compete with existing routes, instead building a network to destinations not already served by plane, train or helicopter. Cheung cited Beihai City in Guangxi province as an example: reaching Beihai from Hong Kong takes 7-8 hours by car but only 108 minutes by seaplane.
Cheung says he also plans to launch an Air Taxi app, which he likened to Uber, with passengers able to book point-to-point journeys. “We can land anywhere, any time,” he said, although admitting there were at present only two locations in Victoria Harbour the seaplane could potentially use – West Kowloon and Kai Tak – and that the company was not yet in detailed discussions with either the West Kowloon Cultural Authority or Kai Tak Cruise Terminals.
When asked about the plans to redesign the Sea Otter’s piston engine to an electric version, Cheung said the proposal would “cost a lot of money”.
But he believes “there’s a lot of money and funding available from the Central government and the Greater Bay Area.” His research team is presently in Macau, he says, while a proposed new pilot training centre would be in Zhuhai. Cheung would not disclose his investors, claiming it’s “a trade secret”.
The Sea Otter is currently approved to fly in the mainland but not in Hong Kong. Cheung says he would need relevant approvals not only from the Civil Aviation Department but also the Marine Department.
Cheung says the sightseeing service would launch with tickets as low as $250, and claims his service could break even with just eight passengers per plane, although he says real estate projects such as marinas, piers and hotels will “subsidise our income”.
Cheung is not the first to dream of returning seaplanes to Hong Kong: in 2008, Peter de Kantzow, the son of Cathay Pacific Airways co-founder Sydney de Kantzow, co-founded Waterfront Air with Canadian entrepreneur Michael Agopsowicz, aiming to run services from Victoria Harbour. The airline folded in 2014 without ever ordering an aircraft.
Seaplane services were common in Hong Kong in the 1940s and 1950s but rendered obsolete with the expansion of Kai Tak in 1958.
But history records a colourful past for the machines. In the 1940s, seaplanes were used to transport gold bullion between Hong Kong and Macao. In 1948, gunmen tried to hijack such a plane, Cathay Pacific’s Miss Macao, the first recorded act of airline piracy: their blundered attempt saw the pilot shot five times in the back and the plane sent into an uncontrolled dive into the South China Sea, killing all but one of the 27 people aboard.