Virgin Atlantic hopes to fly to Australia through Hong Kong by the end of this year if the British government can reach an air services agreement (ASA) with the Hong Kong authorities. Richard Branson, the chairman of the Britain-based airline, said it was urging the British government to start the ASA negotiations next month. 'I would love to fly Virgin Atlantic all the way to Australia. And we have told the Hong Kong authorities that the No 1 choice will be via Hong Kong,' Sir Richard said in Hong Kong yesterday. 'We hope the talks will take place between the British authorities and the Hong Kong authorities in June. And we are hopeful that Virgin Atlantic will fly to Australia before the end of this year.' The flights would also require Australian approval, but a more serious hurdle could be confusion over whether Britain can actually sign such agreements under European Union law. Virgin Atlantic has always hoped to launch the London-Hong Kong-Sydney service as its sister company, Virgin Blue, the no-frills domestic carrier in Australia, can link international passengers to different destinations down under. Sir Richard said the Hong Kong authorities realised that increasing competition on international routes would benefit consumers by helping to bring down ticket prices. Only Cathay Pacific and Qantas are flying from Hong Kong to Australia after Australian carrier Ansett filed for bankruptcy. 'The government's job is not to protect one airline. The government's job is to protect all the travelling public,' Sir Richard said. 'More competition is good for Hong Kong; good for the consumer.' Virgin Atlantic is maintaining its daily direct service from London to Hong Kong although passenger traffic has fallen significantly due to the Sars outbreak. It is asking its staff in Asia, including more than 100 in Hong Kong, to take voluntary no-pay leave to contain costs. Almost 94 per cent of the staff had signed up for the plan, Sir Richard said. He said Virgin Blue would release its annual results next week and he was 'looking forward to surprising the world'. He said it was 'quite likely' that the Australian domestic carrier would become a public company by October.