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MOYO ISLAND, Indonesia (Reuters) - The 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 $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 $140,000, versus over $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.
"We're going to buy them now. We expect next year to be the first delivery," said Setyopurnomo, adding the planes could be built locally under a partnership with local planemaker PT Dirgantara Indonesia.
The Dornier Seastar planes, with turboprop engines made by United Technologies Corp unit Pratt & Whitney, look like flying speedboats. They carry around 12 passengers and fly faster than the eight-seater Cessna Caravan Amphibian that Travira uses.
"It is the first new seaplane developed in the past 50 years ... It can park anywhere you can tie a boat up," said Don McClaughlin, Dornier's vice-president for sales. "Our two biggest target markets right now are Indonesia and China."
Dornier and Cessna Aircraft Co, a subsidiary of Textron Inc, face seaplane competition from Canadian firm Viking Air's 19-seater Twin Otter.
In China, Waterfront Air says it is applying for licenses to use Twin Otters for scheduled services between Shenzen, Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou's industrial Pearl River region.
Elsewhere seaplanes are common in remote locations such as the Maldives, British Columbia and Alaska, but there are few scheduled services.
The Dornier and Cessna seaplanes have a maximum range of over 1,500 km (930 miles), just about enough to fly from Indonesia's capital Jakarta with one refueling stop to the easternmost Papua region. But the cargo they can carry drops after about 300 km, making them more suitable for inter-island hops or operations around a base in far flung provinces.
Other challenges include a lack of specialist pilots, since locals often get poached by rapidly expanding budget carriers, regulations such as the need for annual landing permits, and larger waves in the rainy season making landing impossible in some locations, said Rudiana, Travira's chief operating officer.
"If we can get over these challenges there are a lot of opportunities," said Rudiana. He cited potential demand in areas such as the huge Natuna gas field off Borneo that ExxonMobil hopes to develop, tourism around islands such as Sumatra and Sulawesi, and for firms in Papua, home to major projects for Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold and BP.
The Twin Otter would be useful as it can carry a higher payload much further, but charter airline Aviastar has struggled to get an operating license for one in Indonesia, known for its red tape.
"We could use a bigger plane - flights are packed on a Saturday as everyone wants to head off for the weekend," said Peter Ferrigno, the logistics manager for Newmont's mine. (Additional reporting by Alison Leung in Hong Kong and Tim Hepher in Paris; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)