Macau is gearing up for the launch of a new low-cost airline early next year as the former Portuguese enclave near Hong Kong grows in popularity as a tourist destination.

Macau, which is known primarily for its casinos, became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1999. Until last year it had only one airline, Air Macau, which is a full-service operator that makes most of its money from carrying passengers between Taiwan and China via its home base.

Air Macau previously had an exclusive franchise to operate air services out of Macau but late last year agreed to allow Viva Macau to start operating as the second scheduled carrier. For three years it has been planning to launch a new associate low-cost carrier, Macau Asia Express (MAX).

Chief executive Francis Wai says MAX will finally launch in March with two leased Airbus A320s, which will be joined over the following 12 months by four more. Ho Chi Minh City and Clark in the Philippines will be the first two destinations, followed by points in China and Japan.

MAX is 51%-owned by Air Macau, with the remaining 49% held by Shun Tak Holdings and CNAC Macau. Wai says MAX will not operate on the same routes as Air Macau for at least one or two years. "We will be complementary to Air Macau," says Wai. "Air Macau will focus on cross-strait traffic between major cities in mainland China and major cities in Taiwan."

Viva Macau operates two Boeing 767s to Sydney, Jakarta, Busan and the Maldives. It is now looking to lease more 767s and launch services to Clark, Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo and Phuket.

Macau is undergoing an ambitious infrastructure expansion that includes many new casinos and hotels designed to dramatically increase tourist arrivals, most of which now come by land.

Source: Airline Business