Seaplanes are coming to Washington. But they’ll land on ... land.


The Washington Post

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Ian Duncan

Tailwind Air will fly from New York to College Park Airport to comply with restrictions on airspace around Washington

A Tailwind Air flight from New York lands at the College Park Airport on Aug. 6. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

A planned seaplane service from New York to the Washington area won’t splash down on the Potomac or Anacostia rivers when it launches next month. Instead, flights will be bound for College Park Airport in the Maryland suburbs.

Tailwind Air teased a route map featuring service from New York to Washington in April, but while seaplane service has been proposed in the past by others, the tightly controlled airspace around the nation’s capital became an obstacle. Tailwind chief executive Alan Ram said the New York-based company’s existing Boston route came with its own headaches over logistics.

When entering the Washington market, Ram said, it made sense to use an airport rather than set up a landing zone in the water. The seaplane is the latest mode of transportation to debut in a traffic-clogged region constantly searching for faster methods of travel.

“What we decided was the best approach was to leverage the existing off-the-shelf infrastructure,” Ram said.

Tailwind expects to compete with airlines and Amtrak’s Acela service for business travelers. The company’s fares start at $395 one way, rising to $795 for last-minute bookings, while pitching shorter door-to-door travel times than jets or trains.

The new travel option comes as major airlines and start-ups are exploring the potential for what they have dubbed “flying taxis,” typically small electric aircraft that promise short traffic-busting flights. While those operations would use recent technology, Tailwind says it’s offering a similar service using a model that dates to the earliest days of flying.

Tailwind operates between New York and Boston, as well as other parts of New England. In New York, it flies out of Manhattan’s Skyport Marina at the end of East 23rd Street, avoiding a trip to New Jersey or Queens to catch a plane while flying over the city’s skyline.

The tiny airport in College Park, wedged between a lake and an industrial area more than eight miles outside downtown Washington, doesn’t have the same glamour but does have a history of its own. The airport claims to be the world’s oldest still in operation, and was set up in 1909 when Wilbur Wright came to Washington to train the first military pilots. An adjacent museum showcases the airport’s place in aviation history.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which operates the airport, did not respond to a request for comment on the new flights. A Transportation Security Administration spokesman said he had no information to share about the planned service. The Federal Aviation Administration did not respond to questions about the service.

Tailwind carried out a test flight into and out of College Park earlier this month, but the kind of scheduled service it will offer when the service launches Sept. 13 is new for the facility. The carrier says it plans to start limited operations of roughly two flights per day using eight-passenger Cessna Caravans. The approach, Ram said, is “crawl, walk, run.”

Lee Sommer, manager of the College Park Airport, checks the flight status of a Tailwind flight from New York to Washington on Aug. 6. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

Passengers can park free outside the airport building and aren’t subject to X-ray screening, with check-in allowed 10 minutes before departure.

In the Washington region, National Harbor on the Prince George’s County waterfront seemed to some aviation enthusiasts like a possible landing spot in the water, but it falls within restricted airspace. Restrictions on airspace over the region extend about 15 nautical miles from Reagan National Airport.

Pilots operating to and from the airport are required to go through a vetting procedure with the TSA, and each flight must follow special procedures when in the air. FAA rules include methods for accessing three small airports in Maryland, in addition to mainline flights into National, and it was those existing procedures that made College Park appealing to Tailwind.

Ram, who lives in Falls Church, said it didn’t make sense that a trip between Washington and New York could take as long as a flight to Florida. Tailwind says it can complete the flight in about 90 minutes.

“We had an idea to try to shortcut the major airports and sources of friction in the travel between downtowns in these big cities,” he said.

An incident earlier this year underscored how tight security is in the skies over Washington. A miscommunication between the FAA and security officials at the U.S. Capitol prompted an evacuation when an Army plane conducting a parachute flight at a Nationals game was mistakenly perceived as a threat.