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Commentary: Singapore aviation needs more quarantine-free travel options to start recovering

Singapore’s vaccinated travel lane with Germany is symbolically important but will not generate a significant volume of passengers, writes Brendan Sobie.

Commentary: Singapore aviation needs more quarantine-free travel options to start recovering

People pass the control tower of Singapore's Changi Airport, Singapore on Jan 18, 2021. (File photo: REUTERS/Edgar Su)

SINGAPORE: The launch of vaccinated travel lane (VTL) flights from Germany to Singapore next week marks an important first step in Singapore’s reopening

It provides residents the first opportunity for quarantine-free two-way leisure travel in 18 months.

However, the Germany-Singapore VTL will not have a significant impact on Singapore’s battered aviation and tourism industries given the small number of flights.

CRACKING OPEN TRAVEL

There will initially be only seven weekly VTL flights - five from Frankfurt and two from Munich carrying up to 1,856 passengers per week to Singapore.

The German-Singapore VTL scheme will only generate at most 16,000 monthly additional passengers for Changi and 11,000 for SIA, which represents about 0.3 per cent of their pre-COVID traffic, with the remaining 5,000 coming via Lufthansa.

This is a small fraction of what is needed to breathe life back into Singapore’s aviation hub. Changi passenger traffic is currently 3 to 4 per cent of pre-pandemic levels while SIA Group passenger traffic is 4 to 5 per cent of pre-COVID levels.

SIA Group’s capacity is currently at about one third pre-COVID levels. Load factors remain extremely low – below 20 per cent compared to above 85 per cent prior to the pandemic – as quarantine requirements have killed virtually all demand.

In the Singapore-German market, SIA Group will operate 15 weekly non-stop return flights this month compared to 29 weekly flights in September 2019 while joint venture partner Lufthansa is operating just two weekly non-stop flights compared to 14.

LIMITED IMPACT OF SINGAPORE-BRUNEI VTL

VTL flights from Brunei to Singapore are also launching next week but the impact is even smaller, with only three weekly flights carrying up to 462 passengers each week.

The Brunei-Singapore VTL is also rather moot because Brunei has not yet reopened its borders to foreign travellers, making two-way quarantine-free leisure travel impossible.

Quarantine-free business traffic with Brunei and six other countries was possible for several months as part of Singapore’s reciprocal green lane (RGL) scheme, which had a limited impact due to onerous requirements and was never open to leisure passengers.

The VTL scheme has the potential to be significant because it permits all type of travel but requirements are also rather onerous, particularly the need to have four Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) COVID-19 tests for quarantine-free travel to Singapore – within 48 hours prior to departure, on arrival in Singapore and two post-arrival.

Leisure demand will therefore likely be limited. German residents, after all, can holiday in numerous destinations – Maldives, Canada and pretty much anywhere in Europe, the Middle East and Africa – that require fewer or no COVID-19 tests, are much less restrictive and provide more options for flights.

Changi Airport workers wearing personal protective equipment at Terminal 3, Jun 7, 2021. (Photo: Changi Airport Group)

Visiting friends and relatives might account for most of the traffic on the Germany-Singapore VTL rather than leisure travellers. This includes German residents with friends and family in Singapore as well as Singapore residents with friends and relatives in Germany.

Families with members in Singapore and countries other than Germany could use Germany as a meeting point given it is the only quarantine-free destination for Singapore residents.

The VTL should also generate some business traffic as numerous companies with ties to both countries – like Deutsche Bank, SAP and Siemens – could look to reunite colleagues and resume face to face meetings with customers.

However, despite travel agencies here reportedly receiving more queries about holidays in Germany, demand for Germany-Singapore VTL flights has so far been subdued, with ample seats available online for the remainder of this year despite the limited number of flights.

Many potential travellers in Singapore are likely waiting for the VTL scheme to be expanded to include more countries or hoping for requirements to be reduced.

CONSERVATIVE PILOT

The initial VTL set-up can be viewed as a small and conservative pilot to test out the concept and gain public acceptance.

If the initial VTL with Germany proves successful, Singapore will likely add VTLs with other countries and potentially expand the Germany VTL.

Other likely candidates for the next round of VTLs include Denmark, Italy and Switzerland – countries currently not categorised by Singapore as high-risk, are already open to Singapore and have non-stop flights.

Under Singapore’s new four category system all but 18 countries or territories are in the high-risk fourth category, making most of the world unsuitable for VTLs unless they are upgraded to category 1, 2 or 3.

Of these 18, nine have not yet reopened their borders, making any VTL moot.

The nine remaining open countries include Germany as well as Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland.

Austria, Belgium, Canada, Luxembourg and Norway do not have any nonstop flights from Singapore, making them unsuitable VTL candidates unless Singapore drops its VTL requirement for dedicated flights or Changi Airport is able to attract new routes not served prior to the pandemic.

Listen to aviation observers dissect the future facing national flag carriers after the pandemic and the role of Singapore Airlines on CNA's Heart of the Matter published in September 2020:

Only Denmark, Italy and Switzerland have non-stop services, making them most suitable for VTLs assuming they are not downgraded to category 4.

These three countries are all part of the border-free Schengen Area that Singapore could open up to entirely in a subsequent phase. Treating all 26 countries in the Schengen Area as one block would make sense.

The Singapore-Germany VTL requirement for travellers to have been in Germany at least 21 days prior to travelling relies on self-declarations with threatened enforcement under the Infectious Diseases Act.

This is hardly an ideal setup given it is hard to enforce and that most of Europe is open to travel with looser restrictions.

Singapore’s aviation and travel sectors would welcome such a move – which would enable VTL flights from nine more European countries already served from Changi while travel to all other Schengen Area countries would become possible via land travel or short internal flights.

For now, Singapore’s priority probably remains on assessing how the initial pilot from Germany goes.

It will be particularly keen to track how many VTL passengers test positive and how many do not stay in Germany as required.

As it will take at least a few weeks to gather sufficient data on the Germany-Singapore VTL, any expansion of the scheme or any acceleration of the reopening process is not likely imminent.

The Singapore Government has adopted a very cautious approach to reopening despite having now achieved an 80 per cent vaccination rate, the highest fully vaccinated rate among countries with populations of at least 1 million, and potential travellers expecting the inclusion of more quarantine-free countries and more relaxed travel rules.

While the Germany-Singapore VTL is important symbolically and marks the long-awaited start of the reopening process for Singapore, the modest seven flights permitted so far fail to move the needle.

Even with a full complement of flights, the Germany-Singapore market is not that significant; in 2019, German citizens accounted for 301,000 visitor arrivals at Changi or 2 per cent of total arrivals while Germany only attracted 117,000 Singapore visitors.

Singapore will need a bigger and broader reopening to get the aviation and travel sectors back on their feet.

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.

Source: CNA/sl

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