Finding a quick route from downtown Boston to Manhattan can be vexing at best for business travelers. Drive, hop on Amtrak, or take the air shuttle? Any one of them will lock you in for more than three hours of travel time.
Soon, though, there could be much faster alternative: a seaplane.
After at least two years of preparations and behind-the-scenes discussions, the rival companies Tailwind and Cape Air will each test a nine-passenger Cessna Caravan in Boston Harbor this week as they seek Federal Aviation Administration approval to use the harbor as a take-off and landing zone. One factor the agency will be watching: whether the seaplanes can safely navigate the busy airspace next to Logan International Airport, along with a harbor often crowded with boats. If they receive the federal approvals they need, both companies could launch service within a year.
To many business people who need to trek between these two hubs of commerce, seaplane service that whisks passengers from Boston to Manhattan in under 90 minutes is a long-overdue option, particularly because Boston hasn’t had a public helipad in years.
Logan Airport isn’t far from downtown Boston, but navigating airport security and dealing with traffic makes for a potentially enervating ride. The speediest Amtrak Acela train trip lasts at least 3½ hours. And good luck beating the train if you elect to drive.
“There’s no question the demand is there,” said developer Joseph Fallon, whose Fan Pier office in the Seaport is within walking distance of a likely seaplane departure point. “I’m in New York once or twice a month. The ability to jump on a plane and be down there in an hour-and-a-half, door-to-door, it’s enormous.”
Before the FAA makes a decision, it must consult a variety of other authorities, including city officials and the Coast Guard. A Coast Guard spokeswoman declined to say if that agency has concerns about seaplanes using the harbor.
Tailwind had hoped to begin Boston Harbor service in 2015. But it took longer than the company expected to reach a tentative agreement with the FAA on a landing spot far enough from marinas so as not to interfere with traffic, while still convenient to the shore, chief executive Alan Ram said.
Ram said he’s confident his planes will be able to maneuver safely on crowded summer days, when sailboats and ferries pack the waterway. Pilots would be able to circle in the air until they find a good landing zone, he said, and could land at Logan in the unlikely event that no spot opens up.
Pilots would also need to be able to clearly see the water to take off and land. As a result, flights could be pared back in winter, when there is less daylight. Fog or other inclement weather could keep seaplanes from taking off or landing, though Logan’s general aviation terminal would be a backup option.
Seaplane trips, of course, won’t be cheap. Tailwind expects to start charging in the $1,000 range for a round-trip ticket. Cape Air officials said they intend to be competitive with the walk-up tickets sold for the Delta and American shuttles out of Logan, also in the $1,000 range. For some travelers, though, the time savings would more than outweigh such prices.
Cape Air’s chief executive, Dan Wolf, also a state senator from Cape Cod, said his Hyannis-based company aims to find a docking site along the South Boston Waterfront, ideally a spot that’s close to the Financial District. In New York, Cape Air would land at an existing seaplane dock in the East River, near 23rd Street.
Cape Air currently operates seaplane flights between South Florida and the Bahamas: three departures out of Fort Lauderdale’s airport a day, and one from a seaplane dock in Miami. Those flights started in January. Cape Air officials expect to add planes to their fleet to accommodate the Boston-New York service, which could entail several flights a day.
In recent years, Tailwind has partnered with another company to offer summer seaplane service between Manhattan and the Hamptons. Tailwind, according to Ram, the chief executive, already keeps one amphibious plane at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Connecticut, and will buy another one soon for the Boston-New York route. Ram said he’s talking with a number of Boston property owners for a potential dock, both in the Seaport and on the downtown waterfront.
Without permission to land in Boston Harbor, Tailwind has run a limited charter service from Logan and then from Hanscom Field in Bedford to Manhattan’s 23rd Street dock. The company expects to resume that seasonal service from Logan this month, Ram said.
Cape Air has one advantage over Tailwind: The FAA considers Cape Air to be a scheduled service, not a charter service. Scheduled status allows for more frequent flights. Ram said Tailwind is in the process of upgrading its status.
This won’t be the first time that seaplanes have graced Boston’s shoreline. Plenty of them buzzed by the city’s wharves in the 1930s and 1940s. Andrew Bonney, Cape Air’s senior vice president of planning, said the era of Boston seaplanes probably ended after World War II. That’s when a number of the region’s smaller airports were built, drawing much of the air traffic, he said.
“It’s taken a long time for Cape Air and others to see there’s a lot of virtue to having seaplanes that can take people right downtown,” Bonney said.
Over the decades, seaplanes have flourished in other waterfront cities, such as Seattle, New York, and Miami.
Now Boston may rejoin that list. The talk of seaplanes comes as state and city officials hunt for a helipad location, in part to accommodate General Electric Co.’s needs as it prepares to relocate its headquarters to the South Boston Waterfront this summer from Connecticut. GE officials say the potential for seaplanes hasn’t entered into the discussions for their Boston plans.
Cape Air and Tailwind say they aren’t worried about possible competition. Wolf, Cape Air’s chief executive, said there’s more than enough business to go around.
“You’re really going to be able to . . . get on an airplane at 8 a.m., be at a morning meeting in New York, and turn around and be back by lunchtime,” Wolf said. “We think demand is going to be strong.”