Asean body urged to set up air travel bubble to aid sector

SUTD's White Paper says current measures not effective in restoring passenger numbers

The Asean Secretariat should look at ways to set up a regional air travel bubble for pan-Asean leisure travel with no quarantine, a report by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) has said.

It observed that current measures that promote intra-Asean essential or business travel have not been effective in restoring air passenger numbers, as they applied to less than 1 per cent of people who would have made the trips last year.

The White Paper, published last month and titled Restarting International Air Travel Within Asean, makes a case, using flight statistics from various sources, for allowing the restart of quarantine-free regional tourism. It says that is the most effective next step that governments can take to pull their aviation industries out of the doldrums amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Asean's aviation and travel sectors are already reeling, and the economic impact could become devastating without a partial recovery of leisure travel," the report, written by independent aviation analyst Brendan Sobie of Sobie Aviation, warned. "Air travel bubbles represent a platform to support a partial recovery of the intra-Asean air transport market in 2021."

The paper, commissioned by SUTD's Aviation Studies Institute, which was established jointly with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, bases its recommendation on global trends as well as regional flight patterns.

Taking its cue from other regions such as Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, the report said air travel in the near term will likely focus on short-distance regional flights, as more passengers are reluctant to travel too far during the pandemic or the initial post-pandemic period.

Even now, it said, the resumption of intra-Asean travel is already lagging behind that in other regions, and airlines in the 10 Asean countries, including Singapore Airlines, cannot keep up current uneconomic levels without significant changes.

"Asean airlines have a pressing need to rebuild revenue streams. For the three months ending Sept 30, 2020, Asean-based publicly traded airline groups reported in their quarterly financial statements revenue declines of 75 per cent to 94 per cent," the paper said.

Two small airlines in Asean have shut down since the start of the pandemic, and two larger ones are rehabilitating with supervision from bankruptcy courts.

Prior to the pandemic, about four million people flew between Asean countries every month. Between April and October last year, the number fell to fewer than 100,000 people, mostly consisting of one-way repatriating or worker traffic.

In a normal year, travel within Asean makes up about a fifth of total air passenger traffic in the region.

The paper said an air travel bubble eliminates the need for quarantine - the biggest deterrence to regional tourism now.

"Most visitors travelling between Asean countries are typically short-stay visitors who would normally visit for a period that is significantly less than the quarantine period," it said.

But the paper also noted that a pan-Asean air travel bubble need not apply to all members at once, and could be limited to those that do not have many untraceable infections. It cited the Singapore-Hong Kong model where arrangements would be suspended, as they currently are, if unlinked Covid-19 infections exceeded five cases on a seven-day moving average.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the Covid-19 task force here, has previously said a blanket travel bubble is difficult to implement for all countries in the region owing to their different incidence rates. He said then that Singapore will still look at the situation "country by country", and apply the appropriate principles to individual countries.

Aviation Studies Institute director Peter Jackson said: "We commissioned this White Paper to capture the extent of the downturn in aviation within the Asean region and to answer a few basic questions. We hope it contributes to multilateral discussions on determining a path forward."