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Seaplanes to cruise past Indonesia's lack of airports

MOYO ISLAND, Indonesia -- A seaplane taxiing over a coral reef to deliver tourists to a remote luxury resort may soon become a more familiar sight in Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands and only 183 airports.

At the moment, seaplanes in Indonesia are limited to niche charter flights for high-end tourism and mining, but their use could spread to serve the needs of a fast-growing economy and to beat the lack of transport infrastructure.

State-owned domestic carrier PT Merpati Nusantara Airlines aims to start the first scheduled public seaplane services in the country since the Dutch colonial period, when seaplanes regularly hopped across the main island Java. It is in talks with Canada-based planemaker Dornier to buy 20 seaplanes in a US$120 million deal.

“There is no way infrastructure development can fully service Indonesians ... We're talking about a lot of islands that have no airports but need government attention. The only logical way is using amphibious planes,” said Rudy Setyopurnomo, Merpati's CEO.

Seaplanes ferry passengers from Bali's airport east to the Moyo island hideaway, where Oliver Stone filmed “Savages” earlier this year, in about an hour — less than half the time it would take on a helicopter.

The planes splash to a gentle landing on turquoise water and jettison excited passengers right onto the resort's jetty.

“That was amazing — even smoother than a normal landing. And so convenient — much more comfortable than a helicopter,” said Anna, a tourist from Moscow, as she fed bread to the parrotfish swimming under the seaplane's tail. “It will make a lot of places more accessible. A jumbo jet can't do a water landing.”

Operator Travira Air also runs seaplanes from Bali and Lombok for staff at Newmont Mining Corp.'s massive copper and gold mine on nearby Sumbawa island, saving executives a four hour journey to the airport and cutting costs for the company.

Renting the plane for 100 hours flying time a month costs around US$140,000, versus over US$200,000 for a helicopter carrying less people, Travira says.

Seaplanes symbolized the romanticism of early flight but were killed off by the jet age as regular scheduled transport. The prospect of a renaissance in Asia reflects not only the unique geography of places like Indonesia but also the sheer pace of Asia's growth in demand for planes.

Indonesia's government aims to finance 15 new airports in 2013, but is also relying on attracting billions in private financing for infrastructure. Progress so far has been slow, leaving Merpati looking at a solution not requiring runways — the 20 seaplanes.

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