Virgin Blue wants to spread its wings to Asia but the successful Australian discount airline vows not to rush into any deals just to catch up with rival Qantas' regional budget carrier venture.
"We do want to have a look in this part of the world," chief executive Brett Godfrey said on the sidelines of last week's International Air Transport Association (IATA) meeting in Singapore.
Nothing firm has been agreed with any partner but Godfrey is confident that Virgin Blue, founded by flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson, will be able to find a suitable ally in the next few years.
Officials of Malaysia's no-frills carrier AirAsia said they have had discussions with Virgin Blue, but Godfrey is not naming potential partners.
"I have spoken to many airlines and carriers but we are particularly fussy as to what interests us," said Godfrey. "We had a couple of propositions to which we weren't interested.
"So it may not be today, it may not be next year. It may be within two or three years but I would like to think there are opportunities for us here. I'll be surprised if there wasn't."
He concedes Qantas will have a headstart with its Singapore-based venture, which has yet to be named, aiming to begin commercial flights by the end of 2004.
Qantas teamed up with Singapore's state investment arm Temasek Holdings and two Singaporean businessmen to launch the service.
But Godfrey said that "a headstart in the airline business never lasts you too long."
"If nothing comes along [immediately], there's plenty of other opportunities for us.
"That's why I am saying I'll be foolish to rush into anything anyway."
Godfrey's patience also stems from the view that the region's rapid industrialization has yet to filter down to areas outside the main cities.
"Most of the markets which we would ultimately serve probably don't exist yet because there is no airport, or there is no one that lives there that can afford to fly, but that's all changing," said Godfrey.
But he said the economies of China, India and other Asian countries were growing at such a phenomenal rate that people who now couldn't afford the cost of a budget airline ticket would be able to do so in five or 10 years.
Low-fare carriers led by three-year-old AirAsia have taken the region by storm in recent months.
Singapore Airlines is also jostling for a piece of the action by setting up Tiger Airways.
Another Singapore discount carrier, Valuair, started flying to Hong Kong and Bangkok last month and is looking to expand its routes to other cities within a five-hour flight from the city-state.
According to IATA statistics, the market share of budget carriers in the Asian market is only two percent, compared with 16 percent in Europe and 23 percent in North America, indicating a lot of room for growth.
Under Godfrey's watch, Virgin Blue has captured at least a third of Australia's domestic travel market from Qantas since its launch in 2000, and he is confident it will be successful in Asia as well.
Virgin Blue last month reported a higher-than-expected 47 percent jump in annual net profit to US$110 million in the year to March. It was the carrier's first annual results since becoming a listed company last December.