WOW!Macau among the most likely candidates to win a sub-concession Macau is to allow at least three new carriers to base their operations in the former Portuguese colony before the end of the year, as it looks to build an international air transport network capable of serving a projected boom in its tourism and gaming industries. The leading candidates to muscle in on Air Macau's 25-year concession at the airport are WOW! Macau, Golden Dragon - a start-up to be managed by the same executive team as Hong Kong Express - and an unnamed subsidiary of the Patrick Group, which owns Virgin Blue in Australia. A Macau-based source close to the developments confirmed the frontrunners and the proposed timetable yesterday. 'It looks very likely the concessions will be awarded,' he said. 'If your plans are to have several new casino attractions operational in the next 18 months, it makes sense to have all the pieces in place well before that.' WOW!Macau - backers of which include William Ho, brother of Macau chief executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah - on Sunday threw its lot in with the smaller special administrative region after having entertained Hong Kong as a possible alternative for the past two months. The airline's chief executive, Andrew Pyne, said it was committed to Macau and that its route network and fleet plans would be unveiled once the sub-concession was awarded. Air Macau's executive committee - which comprises executives from TAP Air Portugal, the Macau government, tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun's Sociedade de Tourismo e Diversoes de Macau and the China National Aviation Corp (Macau) - approved the proposed sub-concessions at a March 29 meeting. The matter was subsequently rubberstamped by the Macau government and it is now up to Air Macau to negotiate with the prospective newcomers. While Golden Dragon and the Patrick Group offshoot are thought to be keen to target the mainland market, WOW!Macau was careful to select initial routes within Asia, Europe and Middle East that will not compete with the incumbent. 'We've ruled out Taiwan and mainland China markets for the time being, which frankly represented a sizeable opportunity for us,' Mr Pyne said. 'That is because we see Air Macau as a strong partner for us in those markets.' He said he saw an opportunity for WOW!Macau to feed passengers and cargo into the Air Macau network, perhaps through a code-sharing agreement. Macau is an attractive base for start-ups - particularly those targeting the cost-conscious traveller - because of its low airport user charges and the promising future of the former colony's tourism sector. The territory also has under-utilised its traffic rights: despite the 42 bilateral air-service agreements Macau has signed, Air Macau only schedules flights to two countries. WOW!Macau also has its eye on longer range destinations that it will serve with cargo-friendly passenger aircraft. 'The plan is to lease mostly wide-bodied equipment, which we will supplement with a couple of narrow-bodied planes for some of the thinner routes,' Mr Pyne said. 'If all goes according to plan, we could upgrade to Boeing's new 787 model by 2009-10.'