Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) director general, Subhas Menon, praises the resiliency of the region’s airlines as the aviation industry awaits the smart, sustainable and safe restart of international travel.
To the casual observer, the Asian aviation industry should be close to collapse after the unrelenting onslaught of bad news and misfortune in the past 14 months.
Whilst true on the face of it, the reality is that the industry’s deep-rooted resilience and determination have thus far allowed it to ride-out the COVID perfect storm, and start rebuilding for a restart when the pandemic recedes.
Air travel has been shuttered indefinitely since March 2020 and yet almost all airlines, though battered, bruised and visibly grounded, are still around. A good thing they are, as their endeavours are keeping global supply chains ticking and playing a crucial role in the carriage of stranded residents, essential supplies and most importantly the vaccines so vital to our recovery from the pandemic.
Unimpeded growth had taken Asian airlines to the forefront of the industry, but the past year’s decimation of air travel spiralled into a massive cash-burn and liquidity crunch, the likes of which has not been experienced in the past 50 years. Yet, airline leaders have avoided the spectacle of liquidations by raising private capital, receiving government support, cutting costs to the bone and flying more to transport goods, for which demand has sky-rocketed.
This strong survival instinct, coupled with the efforts of Asia-Pacific governments to keep the virus and fatalities in check, is cause for hope that air travel will turn the corner soon.
The health crisis is still raging in many countries, and Asia-Pacific has not been spared from the periodic resurgence of COVID-19 cases. But, there is a growing sense that the region, which was the first to confront the virus, will soon embark on recovery, given its track record, for diffusing the worst of the virus.
Control of the spread of the virus still seems to be the essential condition for the resumption of international air travel, whether it is achieved by strict controls or through mass vaccination.
In the long run, everyone who can be vaccinated must be as a public health safety net. Governments will only allow travel between places where the pandemic is under control and if their residents are immunised.
Even then, complexity remains, since there can still be reinfection and resurgence, so other established measures like, testing, tracing, tracking and thwarting the spread with health-safety etiquette, have still to be employed, together with the speedier and equitable distribution of vaccines across the world.
Pent-up demand is evidenced every time restrictions are lifted as we have seen with domestic travel which has rebounded to almost 70% of 2019 levels. The need and urge to meet family and business associates after over a year, will spur demand in the VFR (visiting friends and relatives) and corporate travel markets.
Some green shoots of recovery on relatively safe travel corridors finally look set to materialise after several false starts. The Trans-Tasman bubble opened on 19th of April without quarantine. But there is still many a slip between cup and lip. Travel bubbles can be cancelled at short notice if virus cases rise, as in the case of the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble.
Yet airlines must ready for a gradual restart by adopting smart technology solutions and embracing opportunities as they have done with air cargo, for which demand is now even higher than before COVID.
For years, the industry has been searching for digital solutions to address disparate and divergent travel requirements of different governments. The task is now urgent with the requirement for health status certification for air travel. It is also timely as an industry, in keeping with the evolving values of travel consumers, to renew its wows to safety and the environment, which are perennial concerns.
A major impediment is the confusing and sometimes conflicting travel policies especially when it comes to testing, quarantine and vaccination.
Multi-lateral harmonisation is ideal, but a pipe dream given the multiplicity of restrictions and requirements as each government has kept its own counsel.
Travel bubbles provide an effective route to co-ordinate and clarify requirements bilaterally between pairs of destinations. Many cooks spoil the broth but two heads are better than one.
After a year in the deep-freeze, Asia’s air transport industry has remained resilient to the health crisis and is poised to get back in the saddle for a sustained restart of international air travel.
Governments’ continued support not only financially but also in partnering the industry to accelerate the use of digital health certificates and biofuels for international flights, will provide the necessary impetus for a sustained recovery.
The Asia-Pacific aviation industry is waiting with bated breath to resume in a smarter, safer and more sustainable way.
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