Asia-Pacific Aviation: The challenges of airline operations in a pandemic

14 July, 2021

The Asia-Pacific region was initially hit hard by the pandemic, probably more so than the other regions. But some of the key Asia-Pacific markets have also recovered more quickly than those in other parts of the world. While borders generally remain closed, or are subject to quarantine restrictions that have a similar effect on travel, there have been some so-called green lanes established for essential travel, but in general the hoped-for travel bubbles have been slow to develop.

Recent weeks have seen increased waves of the virus resurfacing in countries who had believed to have COVID-19 under control. This return however is not unexpected and has emphasised the need for practical, data-driven steps to opening up in a safe means.

In the Jun-2021 edition of CAPA Live, Aviation Week Network, senior air transport editor, Adrian Schofield, spoke to airline and airport leaders across Asia to better understand how markets are performing, what practical, data-driven steps should each country take to opening up and discuss if individual governments are investing enough in technology, processes and infrastructure.

Javed Anwar Malik, group chief operating officer, AirAsia Berhad noted that just 7% of the airline’s fleet in Malaysia is currently operational and just 10% at the group level. He predicted it will not be until Aug-2021 that the airline can realistically grow domestic operations, but it will not be until Oct-2021 that is likely to return to all 17 airports that it had previously served in the country.

In the case of Hong Kong Airlines, the carrier’s VP, Ben Wong, stated the business is remaining vigilant, adding it is aiming for a recovery to pre-COVID levels by 2024 or earlier. Mr Wong said successful global recovery depends on vaccination rates, quarantine restriction policies and digital health pass solutions adopted by countries.

According to Mr Wong, the carrier has shifted focus to a local regional strategy for the time being "to cope with pandemic difficulties". He forecast passenger services will not increase before at least the end of 2021, adding: "We have reduced our fleet size and are operating around eight aircraft". He stated the carrier is relying on cargo services as revenue from passenger operations has "really, really diminished".

The pandemic has had a significant impact on airports and that is particularly noticeable for Singapore Changi International, a major hub in the region pre-pandemic. Changi Airport Group, managing director, air hub development, Lim Ching Kiat, highlighted that traffic is still about 3% of pre COVID levels.

“The situation is really quite complex in terms of decision making,” he said. “For the near term I think we're hoping to get to around between 30% and 50% of pre COVID level. I think that's the first milestone that we are gunning for.”

You can learn more insights from Javed Anwar Malik, Lim Ching Kiat and Ben Wong on the recovery process and notably on the proposed Singapore – Hong Kong travel bubble in the following video of the CAPA Live session.