16 March 2023

Will there be champagne? And 11 other FAQs about Canberra's new seaplanes

| James Coleman
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Seaplane on Lake Burley Griffin

Sydney Seaplane on Lake Burley Griffin. Photo: James Coleman.

It’s being billed as “the world’s most spectacular commuter service” and a “bucket-list” item.

Sydney Seaplanes is trialling flights in and out of Lake Burley Griffin’s West Lake this week, ahead of taking the first official passengers to and from Sydney’s Rose Bay in spring. South Coast Seaplanes, flying between here and Moruya, will also be trialling flights around the lake from Saturday.

It’s the result of years of toing and froing between the operators, the National Capital Authority (NCA) and up to 70 different lake-user groups.

What started as a curiosity in 2019 is finally only a few months away, so before you either book the tickets on a Murray’s coach or browse flight prices (we’re guessing the train is off the cards – for now at least), how does Canberra’s upcoming seaplane service stack up?

1. Why?

Aaron Shaw is the managing director of Sydney Seaplanes and sees a vast business opportunity here.

“There are 11 million passenger journeys between Sydney and Canberra every year, and one million of those are flying,” he says.

“We think there’s a very good commercial opportunity here, particularly given the time savings.”

It’s being marketed for commuters between the two cities, but there could be others doing it for kicks.

READ ALSO Lake users win seaplane trial flights before regular services start

“What we’re creating here is one of the world’s most spectacular commuter services where you’ve got Australia’s Parliament House at one end and the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge at the other,” Aaron says.

“We also want to bring back seaplane transport services to Sydney, with the opportunity to expand it to Newcastle.”

NCA CEO Sally Barnes says what it is not about is giving Canberra another airport.

“Lake Burley Griffin is not going to turn into a major airport,” she says.

“It is an interesting flight and one that is a must-do. It will be on bucket lists.”

2. How many flights will there be per day?

Five flights a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, not including cancellations due to poor weather. Although it’s worth noting this only includes Sydney Seaplanes. South Coast Seaplanes is yet to negotiate times.

The first flight of the day leaves Canberra Airport for Rose Bay at 8 am, while the first to land on the lake arrives at 10:30 am and leaves again an hour later. Another flight comes in at 2:30 pm, also leaving an hour later.

The majority will take off and land in West Lake, with the Central Basin playing a backup role.

“In case there’s a yacht or something in West Lake,” Aaron adds.

Each flight can carry up to nine passengers.

3. Is there a ‘gate’?

Passengers will board and disembark from a new pontoon near the National Museum of Australia.

“The museum’s café will be a bit of a waiting room,” Ms Barnes says, “so that will help generate some business there.”

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4. How long is the flight?

It’s almost exactly one hour from Lake Burley Griffin to Rose Bay. From there, you can catch one of 60 regular ferry services to Circular Quay, where there are ferry, light rail and train connections.

Aaron says the whole trip is at least two hours faster than an equivalent commercial flight, by the time you factor in catching a train from Sydney Airport to the CBD.

“So it’s about an hour and fifteen from the National Museum of Australia to Circular Quay, which is by far the fastest way of commuting between the centre of both cities.”

The route heads to Wollongong and then along the coast to Sydney.

5. How much does it cost?

“We’re going to try and price it similar to commercial flights,” Aaron says.

Currently, these can go from $300 for the most basic economy seat to $800 for business class.

“I think we’ll be cheaper than that. We’ll be competitive.”

6. Where does it fill up?

South Coast Seaplanes will use a fuel trailer to refuel, while Sydney Seaplanes will get what they need at Canberra Airport.

A company co-founded by Aaron called Dovetail Electric Aviation will also work to transition the turbine engines seaplanes to quieter electric motors within 10 years.

7. What if there’s a boat in the way?

“Seaplanes give way to all other marine traffic – it’s maritime legislation,” Aaron says.

“We also operate in a very busy harbour in Sydney, which is about the same size as West Lake, with 60 ferry services, multiple pleasure craft, craft sailing schools, etc. It’s a very busy waterway, so we’re used to operating in that environment.”

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8. What if there’s fog?

“If the weather isn’t suitable on the lake, we’ll land at Canberra Airport,” Aaron says.

“We’ve still got Sydney Harbour as our main base, and that is where most of the time is saved on the journey.”

9. How much luggage can I take?

You’d better pack light, each passenger is only permitted about 10 kg.

10. Will there be champagne?

No, but Aaron says they are considering some refreshments. Think water and a packet of cashews.

“Maybe. We haven’t decided that yet.”

11. Um, what if I need to wee?

“You have to go before you leave.”

There – you’ve been warned. And the windows also don’t open (we checked).

12. Sounds great. When can I have a go?

Ms Barnes says the current trial was requested by lake users, including the Canberra Yacht Club, to finesse take-off and landing routes and ensure it’s not disrupting those on the lake for sports or recreation.

“You’ll see people around testing for noise, looking at the wake [from the plane] and any impacts on wildlife,” she says.

“We’ll look at the results from that and progress towards a licence and new Lake User Guide, which will tell all of the lake users what’s happening and how to operate around each other.”

Provided this all goes to schedule, and Sydney Seaplanes receives its licence, it will start in spring.

For now, email seaplanes@nca.gov.au to register your interest in a trial flight.

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Sure, if people want that service, go ahead… though I am surprised it’s approved given you’re not allowed to operate a powered boat on the lake – surely a seaplane goes a lot faster (makes more waves and noise) than a powered boat?! And in Canberra, it’s not as if the airport is that busy or that far away that you’d have to use the lake instead of the airstrip?

To all those naysayers out there, I say I can’t wait!!

Onya Sally!

Jenny Graves1:59 pm 16 Mar 23

It really is a joke to say that you could use it for commuting. Rose Bay is a fair distance from the centre of Sydney and the ferries to Circular Quay are not that quick or regular. As for the Canberra end, there is a bus every 30 minutes that takes 17 minutes to get from the National Museum to Civic. This has been hyped up to the nth degree and I predict that it will be a total disaster of a business venture.

Stephen Saunders10:13 am 16 Mar 23

$300? That’s elite, Aaron. We peasants will keep using the $45 bus. We have no choice. Train service is a joke.

Ironic, Dame Sally Barnes is fairly swooning, to have luxury air-services strafing our lake. When she keeps throwing logs, and long “planning delays”, at our commuter rail.

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