A new way to get to Macau: Seaplane

May 30, 2013: 10:29 AM ET

Peter de Kantzow has big plans for Waterfront Air, the startup airline that will shuttle passengers from mainland China to Macau via seaplanes.

By David Whitford, editor-at-large

Twin Otter seaplane

Twin Otter seaplane

FORTUNE -- Asian high-rollers may soon have a stylish new way to make a splash on arrival in Macau: in a seaplane.

Seaplanes were once as much a part of the Victoria Harbor seascape as Chinese junks, but not for the last 50 years. These days if you want to get to Macau from Hong Kong, you've got basically two options: high-speed ferry, which takes about an hour and costs less than $20 one-way in economy class; or helicopter, which will save you time but scares some people, frankly, and not just because it costs 25 times more than the boat does.

"I just see a really great opportunity here," says Australian entrepreneur Peter de Kantzow, a 58-year-old accountant and recreational aviator whose last big gig was running the Hong Kong office of Calvin Klein Jeanswear.

De Kantzow wears two gold watches, a Rolex and a Movado, one on each wrist -- relics passed down to him by his father, legendary aviator Sydney de Kantzow, who flew cargo across the Hump in the Himalayas and delivered bombers from Canada to England during World War II, and afterward co-founded Cathay Pacific; Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, it was said, trusted no other pilot but him. Sydney died when Peter was just three years old -- in a car wreck, ironically -- but the legacy of the father (who also flew seaplanes in Victoria Harbor) is very much present in the son's new venture, Waterfront Air.

When de Kantzow surveys the market, he sees, 1) Plenty of demand: nearly 200 million cross-border passenger movements every year, by boat, helicopter, bus, car and train, from points up and down China's eastern seaboard; and 2) A niche he can fill with a travel option that matches the helicopter for speed, thrills, and great views, undercuts it on price, and beats it hands down on romance. Waterfront will operate with a leased fleet of DHC-6 Twin Otters -- iconic, 16-passenger, STOL (short takeoff and landing) amphibious planes, manufactured in Canada.

MORE: China's transportation boom

De Kantzow hopes to launch as early as next year from a spacious marine terminal in China's Shenzhen International Airport. He's starting there instead of nearby Hong Kong because local authorities were willing to move more quickly than their counterparts in Hong Kong -- a function of Shenzhen's desire to boost its tourism and service sectors as growth in manufacturing has slowed.

Passengers arriving at Shenzhen's modern airport from all over the world will be picked up at the gate, carried to the nearby Waterfront terminal, and from there flown to Macau by seaplane in about 15 minutes. The rollout plan calls for additional hubs upriver in Guangzhou, a major transit point for Chinese mainlanders; and at the old Hong Kong airport on the water in Kowloon. Ultimately de Kantzow envisions hundreds of regularly scheduled flights daily crisscrossing the populous Pearl River Delta, home to five cities with more than five million residents, and nearby ocean stretches of unspoiled natural beauty.

Among de Kantzow's partners are a Canadian, Michael Agopsowicz, whose listed skills in the offering sheet include "proven political and bureau level lobbyist;" and a Chinese partner, Bert Kwok, who gets the chairman's title. He's still looking for a well-connected Chinese partner to protect what Waterfront Air has accomplished so far and speed the process of turning memorandums of understanding, like the one signed with Shenzhen airport authorities, into ironclad contracts.

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De Kantzow says he'll need about $25 million to complete the initial phase in the Pearl River Delta, and ultimately $200 million to fulfill his dream of connecting ocean beaches, lakes, and waterways from Hainan in the south to Dalian in the north. Job one right now is obtaining a general aviation permit from the Civil Aviation Authority of China. That could take up to 18 months.

The other day I rode with de Kantzow by car from Hong Kong through the border crossing at Shenzhen: first to the airport, where he showed me the shell of Waterfront Air's future headquarters; then east to an area known as the Chinese Riviera, where we had lunch at a Sheraton resort overlooking a potential water landing site; and finally to a lovely, nearly empty beach, where we bought ice cream on a stick. Then we got back in the car for the three-hour drive back to Hong Kong. Too bad the seaplanes weren't running yet.

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