Hellenic Seaplanes Bets on Greek Airborne Island Hopping

Hellenic Seaplanes S.A., a new airline set to start flying tourists between Greek islands this summer, forecasts that sea-based commercial carriers could generate 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in annual revenue as European travelers return to a country emerging from recession.

With nearly 6,000 islands and fewer than 50 airports, Greece is a “natural” for seaplanes and could become “the center of a seaplane industry” in Europe, Nicolas Charalambous, president and chief executive officer of Hellenic Seaplanes, said in an interview in Athens. “The Maldives and Virgin Islands have shown how seaplanes can contribute to the growth of tourism and we have more islands, a longer coastline and are close to large European tourist markets.”

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has called tourism, Greece’s largest industry, “the first locomotive that started and began to pull our economy out of a painful six-year recession” that’s seen unemployment hit 28 percent. Industry groups say reaching a target of 24 million tourists by 2021 would add 9 percentage points to gross domestic product and create 300,000 jobs. Tourism accounts for over 16 percent of Greece’s GDP, one of the highest levels in Europe.

Hellenic Seaplanes is betting that continued growth in tourist visits, which the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises estimates will total as many as 18.5 million this year, will fuel revenue for seaplane operators, Charalambous said. The company wants to build as many water aerodromes as possible before the peak summer season and expects to have 112 by the end of 2015.

Niche Market

Investment from tourism companies like Hellenic Seaplanes could help create new niche markets, spark growth and development on islands and in ports and create jobs, while boosting the real-estate market, Charalambous said.

The Greek government has agreed to speed up licensing to allow flights to start before the summer, Environment Minister Yiannis Maniatis said Feb. 18, citing the industry’s potential role in boosting tourism.

Charalambous’s company wants to “act as a feeder” to carriers such as International Consolidated Airlines Group SA’s British Airways and Aegean Airlines SA (AEGN), he said. Code-sharing could allow passengers to “buy a ticket from anywhere in the world to a Greek airport, and then onward to water aerodromes on islands we serve.”

Hellenic Seaplanes has secured 16.5 million euros from U.S. and European private equity funds to finance plans to buy or lease 20 new planes, Charalambous said. The company wants to work with a fund that “knows the seaplane business,” he said. Blackstone Group (BX) LP last year bought a controlling stake in Maldivian Air Taxi and Trans Maldivian Airways, who together operate the world’s largest seaplane fleet.

‘Mamma Mia’

Hellenic Seaplanes has approval to operate between the popular Ionian Sea island of Zakinthos, the western port of Patras, the northwestern island of Corfu and the central port of Volos, serving neighboring islands including Skopelos, the setting for the film “Mamma Mia.”

Hellenic Seaplanes also plans to offer sightseeing flights, resort transfers and cargo services, Charalambous said. Seaplanes can also be used as ambulances to bring patients from remote islands to larger facilities.

The company is in contact with cruise and tour operators for possible deals on sightseeing flights, Charalambous said. In cargo, it’s working on a partnership with DHL Worldwide Express and is talking to Interamerican, Greece’s biggest health insurer, about medical evacuation operations.

Hellenic Seaplanes will reply to a state asset-sales fund invitation to investors to express interest in building a water-airport hub in the Athens suburb of Paleo Faliro, he said.

The carrier will target Cyprus after Greece, focusing on operations “in parallel with the planned development of casinos,” Charalambous said. “We could connect Cyprus with neighboring Lebanon and even Egypt to carry potential casino clients.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Tugwell in Athens at ptugwell1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jerrold Colten at jcolten@bloomberg.net

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