Macau Asia Express, a low-cost carrier, has lured a veteran UK aviation industry executive out of retirement.

The move reflects the scramble for managerial talent in the former Portuguese enclave where the economy is booming due to gambling.

Ed Winter, who retired last year as EasyJet’s chief operating officer after almost four decades in the industry, is set to become Macau Asia Express’s first chief executive with effect from next month, according to two people familiar with the appointment.

Formally established in January, Macau Asia Express is a joint venture between Air Macau, the territory’s flagship carrier; China National Aviation Company Limited, Air Macau’s state parent; and Shun Tak Holdings, the Hong Kong-listed flagship of Stanley Ho, Macao’s gambling tycoon.

Macau Asia Express will begin operations early next year, and will be the territory’s second budget airline after Viva Macau, the airline managed by former Cathay Pacific executives that expects to launch its maiden flight within months.

Macau’s gambling industry, already the world’s second largest after the Las Vegas strip, is in the midst of a construction frenzy sparked by its liberalisation in 2002, which ended Stanley Ho’s 40-year monopoly over the sector.

Since then, the number of casinos in Macao has doubled to 22 and an additional 11 are planned to open by the end of 2009, according to figures compiled by the territory’s industry regulator and brokerage CLSA.

Investors include Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn, US gaming magnates; MGM, a US entertainment group; and James Packer’s Publishing and Broadcasting Limited.

More than 90 per cent of the 10.4m people who visited Macao in the first half of this year either crossed its land border with Zhuhai or travelled by ferry from Hong Kong. Gaming and resort operators are hoping that low-cost carriers such as Macau Asia Express and Viva Macau will extend the territory’s regional and international reach.

Mr Winter joined BOAC as a pilot in 1967 and was a founding director and senior executive at Go Fly, British Airway’s budget off-shoot. He moved over to EasyJet after it acquired Go in 2002. His appointment is the latest example of Macao companies’ hunger for experienced managerial talent.

This year Mark Brown, the former chief executive of Atlantic City’s Trump Entertainment Resorts, moved to Macao to help run Mr Adelson’s Sands Macau casino, the world’s largest with 740 tables. Jardine Matheson’s Mandarin Oriental hotel group tapped Pierre Barthes, who opened its New York hotel in 2003, to manage its Macao operation.

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