Do Any Airlines Still Operate Flying Boats?

Back in the 1930s before the start of the Second World War if you wanted to fly long distances, the flying boat was the king of the skies. After having recently written about Pan Am Clippers and how they were the pinnacle of luxury air travel, we began to wonder if any airlines still operate flying boats.

Chalk’s Ocean Airways propeller-driven twin-engine Turbine Grumman Mallard taking off from Bimini. Photo: Getty Images

Able to take off and land on any body of water, the flying boats were a practical solution and a cheaper alternative to building airports.

Seaplanes are not flying boats

Before we get into more detail about flying boats, lets first explain the difference between a flying boat and a seaplane. A flying boat is as it says in the name, a boat that can fly. Built around a single hull which serves as the planes floatation device, a flying boat takes off and lands on its fuselage. A seaplane or floatplane, as they are often referred to, is a pontoon-based plane that has floats instead of having wheels attached to it. This means that the aircraft’s body, unlike  flying boat, never touches the water.

Who were the flying boat operators?

Pan American Airways

Founded in 1927, Pan American Airways built its business by buying privately owned small airlines and getting government contracts to deliver mail. Initially, Pan Am used Sikorsky S-40 flying boats before asking Boeing to design and build a flying boat capable of crossing oceans.

Boeing obliged with an aircraft called the Boeing 314 that Pan Am went on to call the clipper. Clipper was chosen due to the name’s association with the iconic mid-19th-century merchant sailing ships. In total, the Seattle planemaker built 12 Boeing 314s for Pan Am, three of which the American airline sold to BOAC.

Imperial Airways

Founded in 1924 after the merger of four small airlines, Imperial Airways later merged with British Airways to become the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).

Do Any Airlines Still Operate Flying Boats?
Imperial Airways were the first airline to play a movie during a flight. Photo: Library of Congress, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

While flying from Foynes, Ireland en route to America in April of 1940, Imperial Airways was the first airline to play an inflight movie for its passenger’s entertainment.

American Export Airlines

Founded in 1937 as a subsidiary of American Export Shipping, American Export Airlines (AEA) received a license to operate a flying boat service to Europe despite objections from Pan Am.

Vought-Sikorsky VS-44
American Export Airlines ordered three Vought-Sikorsky VS-44s. Photo: Bill Larkins via Flickr

In 1939 AEA ordered three Vought-Sikorsky VS-44 flying boats and was approved by President Roosevelt to fly routes to the United Kingdom, France, and Portugal. In 1945 AEA was sold to American Airlines who went on to form American Overseas Airlines.

Air France

Air France came into existence in 1933 following the merger of Compagnie Générale Aéropostale, Compagnie Internationale de Navigation Aérienne (CIDNA), Société Générale de Transport Aérien (SGTA), Air Orient, and Air Union. Unfortunately for Air France, the war scuppered all plans of operating a flying boat service to America.

Concrete runways made the flying boat obsolete

When the war ended in 1945 there now were enough concrete runways to make flying boats obsolete. In fact, just a few small companies found a niche market where they could operate a flying boat service that was profitable.

One that I remember well after using them to fly from Nassau to Miami was a company called Chalks International Airlines who operated a service between Biscayne Bay and the Bahamas.

Using 17-passenger Grumman G-73 Mallards, Chalks business was made ferrying gambler’s to Paradise Island in the Bahamas from Florida. Sadly following the 9/11 attacks, Chalks had to move their operating base from Watson Island to Fort Lauderdale and suspended all flights following the fatal crash of flight 101 on December 19, 2005.

If you know of any airlines operating flying boats today we would love to hear all about them in the comments section.