The economic downdraft from the Pearl River Delta boom has Hong Kong's helicopter operators rubbing their hands in anticipation of a bonanza as the mainland shapes up as the third arm of their golden triangle. Business, gambling and entertainment trips are expected to account for a surge in demand, and Hong Kong and mainland authorities are working on determining a Hong Kong-Jiangmen flight path. Ferry and bus services already offer transport across the border and the long-awaited Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge will be built in the near future but the helicopter operators are buoyed by the outlook for cross-border helicopter flights which are likely to cost more than $2,000 one way. HeliExpress, owned by casino tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun, is the sole regular cross-border helicopter operator. It plans to fly between Hong Kong and Jiangmen in Guangdong province this year. Chief executive Cheyenne Chan yesterday said an agreement had been signed with the Jiangmen government. HeliExpress operates scheduled Hong Kong-Macau and Shenzhen-Macau flights. The Hong Kong-Macau trip takes 15 minutes and can cost $1,800, while the Shenzhen-Macau flight of the same duration costs $1,700. Ms Chan said the preliminary price for the Hong Kong-Jiangmen trip was about $2,000 for a journey of less than 30 minutes. The company sees a good business potential for the new route because Jiangmen ranks fourth in terms of gross domestic product in Guangdong. 'Also, there are a lot of Taiwanese businessmen in Jiangmen. They can take our helicopters to Macau and switch to a plane to fly home,' Ms Chan said. The new route will have a stop in Macau, which Ms Chan said was necessary for refuelling and picking up passengers. Each helicopter can carry up to 12 passengers. To cater for the forecast growth in the business, the Hong Kong government aims to build another helipad adjacent to the one atop the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry pier near the Shun Tak Centre next year. HeliExpress, which runs the existing helipad, will bid for the construction and operation of the new facility, estimated to cost between $60 million and $70 million. A company survey has shown that 40 per cent of the company's Hong Kong-Macau passengers go to the former Portuguese enclave for gambling, 20 per cent to 30 per cent for business and the rest for entertainment. On the Shenzhen-Macau route, launched in 2002, 50 per cent to 60 per cent of customers travel for gambling. Ms Chan said Shenzhen had become a hub for people from different mainland provinces wanting to visit Macau casinos. She predicted that demand for these trips would rise along with the growth in the number of casinos in Macau. The demand will come from customers who want to save time, she said. While ferry services are relatively cheap, passengers face long immigration queues at the start and end of their trips. New World First Ferry trips take up to 75 minutes and cost $140 for ordinary class to $245 for deluxe from Tsim Sha Tsui to Macau. Turbojet, owned by Mr Ho's Shun Tak Holdings, also operates Hong Kong-Macau ferry services for $138 to $240 per trip. HeliExpress has five Sikorsky helicopters each costing US$7 million to US$8 million, with three in frequent use and two kept as back-ups. Ms Chan said the existing fleet could easily cater for the Hong Kong-Jiangmen route. Hong Kong's only other helicopter operator, Heliservices, believes one destination is not enough. Heliservices is under the Hong Kong Aviation Group owned by the Kadoorie Group. Heliservices, which mainly flies within Hong Kong, wants to operate non-scheduled cross-border flights to the Pearl River Delta and has been pushing the government to build a commercial heliport in Wan Chai. Hong Kong Aviation executive director Chris Buchholz said: 'For us, it's not enough to be able to land just in Jiangmen ... two points do not make much sense for non-scheduled services.' While current cross-border helicopter services focused on scheduled services, there was a need to develop non-scheduled services operating like taxis, he said. He said if Hong Kong failed to address cross-border issues for helicopter services in the Pearl River Delta, it might lose prospective overseas investors to Shanghai. Mr Buchholz said the government should develop point-to-point helicopter services from Hong Kong to the Pearl River Delta and resolve cross-border issues. While the picture for cross-border travel looks rosy, the prospects for Hong Kong's domestic helicopter services are not so good. HeliExpress abandoned its loss-making domestic services last month because it could not see business improving. Mr Buchholz said the non-scheduled helicopter industry could grow only if a new heliport were built in the central business district. Sam Hui, assistant secretary of the Economic Development and Labour Bureau, said the government was doing a feasibility study on a new heliport in Wan Chai.