Commentary: To facilitate regional air travel again, ASEAN needs to harmonise standards
The ASEAN Secretariat needs to play a proactive role in promoting air travel bubbles, says Brendan Sobie.
SINGAPORE: Already devastated by COVID-19, air transport in Southeast Asia is being further set back by unharmonised standards and the failure to so far establish any travel bubbles or green lanes.
There is a pressing need for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to become more active in aviation, which has a critical role in driving tourism and the region’s overall economy.
It is essential that dialogue between Southeast Asian countries is stepped up to facilitate air travel and tourism.
A lack of uniform standards in ASEAN has led to a confusing environment for passengers and a challenging environment for airlines.
HOW MANY SEATS TO BLOCK
For example, some ASEAN countries are still requiring airlines to block seats and not fly at full capacity despite global guidelines recommending against any capacity restrictions.
Blocking seats is uneconomical and considered unviable over the long-term given the impact on air fares and airline profitability.
The industry consensus is that social distancing is not necessary on aircraft given the hospital grade air filters installed on all commercial passenger aircraft and several health measures airlines have implemented to limit the possibility of the virus spreading between passengers.
However, among the six main ASEAN markets, only Malaysia and Vietnam are now permitting the sale of all seats.
Thailand and Singapore are requiring airlines block three rows of seats at the back of the aircraft – equivalent of nine seats or 5 per cent of capacity on a 180-seater A320, the most common aircraft type and configuration for travel within Southeast Asia.
Indonesia is requiring airlines block 30 per cent of seats, resulting in a maximum of 126 seats on a 180-seat A320.
The Philippines government has issued guidelines stating that three rows on both sides of the aisle should be blocked, which is the equivalent of 18 seats or 10 per cent of capacity on a 180-seat A320.
However, some local government units (LGUs) in the Philippines have put in place stricter requirement that override the federal government guidelines.
For example, flights to or from its third largest city Davao are limited to 75 per cent of capacity or 135 seats on a 180-seat A320 while flights to Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan are limited to 67 per cent of capacity or 120 seats on a similar aircraft.
TO TEST OR NOT TO TEST
The idea that local governments can dictate standards for air travel is unjustifiable, inconsistent and needs to be addressed urgently.
Some local governments in the Philippines also require a disparate combination of documents, with frequent changes that have confused passengers, as well as COVID-19 tests or quarantining passengers arriving on domestic flights.
Indonesia is the only ASEAN country requiring COVID-19 tests for all domestic passengers.
While the federal requirement is a rapid test, some local governments including Bali have been requiring a full polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
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Given PCR tests cost around 2 million rupiah (US$140) in Indonesia it is denting demand for Bali, Indonesia’s largest holiday destination.
There is also varying local requirements for international arriving passengers – limited at the moment to repatriating citizens as visitors are not permitted – with some regional governments such as Medan requiring COVID-19 tests prior to arrival.
While there may be a point in the future that testing becomes the global norm for international air travel, the relatively limited testing capacity and high cost make it challenging to implement in ASEAN at this point.
It is particularly challenging to implement in large countries such as Indonesia, which has the largest domestic air transport market in ASEAN and the sixth largest in the word.
As domestic air travel in Indonesia is generally price sensitive, any additional cost and inconvenience impedes the pace of recovery.
CONFUSION FOR AIRLINES
Indonesia has changed regulations multiple times in the last two months, often with no notice, leaving airlines scrambling.
Indonesia’s largest airline, Lion Air, stopped flying and restarted twice with the second suspension driven by onerous requirements that were difficult to implement, creating confusion among passengers.
Indonesia initially announced in late April the suspension of all domestic flights until early June but in early May made an abrupt U-turn, resuming domestic flights with poorly communicated requirements that created chaos at the airports as passengers were confused.
All airlines including Lion Air are now flying again. However regulations continue to pose challenges for both airlines and passengers, impacting the pace of recovery.
Airlines throughout ASEAN have had a hard time keeping up with multiple new regulations.
Air travel in a pandemic environment needs to be vastly different but that does not mean it has to be different in every country.
In addition to a lack of uniform standards in seating capacity and COVID-19 testing, there is disparity on procedures for boarding, deplaning, cabin baggage and lavatories.
The one area there is generally consensus on in ASEAN is the use of face masks, but there is some variation on what is done – or can be legally be done – when a passenger refuses to wear one.
ASEAN NEEDS TO TAKE THE LEAD
Coming up with standards for air travel is not easy given how quickly and how much things have changed since COVID-19 became a global pandemic in March.
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However, the global aviation industry responded expeditiously at the beginning of June with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) publishing guidelines that were drafted by a special task force following consultations with industry stakeholders, industry associations and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The objective of the ICAO guidelines is to harmonise standards across the world but unfortunately several countries have not yet followed the recommendations, resulting in a confusing patchwork of regulations.
The need to harmonise has become a pressing issue globally for the aviation industry but lack of harmonisation in Southeast Asia is particularly bad.
The ASEAN Secretariat, given its overall mission to promote intergovernmental cooperation and facilitate integration, is the natural platform for supporting dialogue and driving change to the mutual benefit of the 10 member countries.
The ASEAN Secretariat’s transport division needs to be promoting uniform standards regulating air travel during the pandemic but it has had a relatively weak presence in aviation since the implementation of an open skies policy five years ago.
This crisis represents an opportunity for ASEAN’s air transport group to step up and facilitate a recovery for the region’s battered aviation industry however the working group has not yet held any meetings since the start of the pandemic.
ASEAN should be advocating and facilitating uniform standards and regulations, which are urgently needed to support the resumption of international travel within Southeast Asia.
While domestic travel has resumed across ASEAN, the number of scheduled international passenger flights within the region is currently operating at around 2 per cent of normal levels.
International flights within other regions have started resuming at a faster rate and are now at a much more significant level, particularly in Europe.
Globally the first phase in the recovery of the international air transport market is focusing on the short haul or regional segment.
To participate in this initial recovery phase ASEAN will need uniform standards to facilitate flights between countries and travel bubbles.
There has been talk for several weeks throughout Asia about travel bubbles or green lanes but the pace of implementation has been slow compared to other regions, particularly Europe.
There are not yet any travel bubbles between any ASEAN country.
The ASEAN Secretariat should be promoting travel bubbles and providing a framework for restarting international air travel.
Negotiating individual bubbles is complicated but ASEAN could provide a multilateral platform with several phases, enabling countries that have contained the virus to be first at establishing travel bubbles with others to follow in subsequent phases.
The first bubbles under such a framework could involve Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
There have already been advanced discussions about a bubble between Malaysia and Singapore, including a proposal that would start with air services before opening the land border at a later phase.
The resumption of international flights within ASEAN can be managed safely and gradually, starting with Singapore-Kuala Lumpur, which was the world’s largest international route in 2019.
However, for Malaysia-Singapore and other Southeast Asian country pairs to reopen dialogue between governments has to be facilitated, enabling harmonised standards and a multilateral framework for travel bubbles.
The ASEAN Secretariat is the most logical platform for facilitating this dialogue and driving a resumption of air travel within Southeast Asia.
Brendan Sobie is the founder of Singapore-based independent aviation consulting and analysis firm Sobie Aviation. He was previously chief analyst for CAPA – Centre for Aviation.